Major calms fears over HK handover

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The Independent Online


Hong Kong

John Major yesterday took steps to quell widespread anxiety in Hong Kong with a stronger than expected series of measures and pledges designed to build confidence in the colony in the run up to its handover to China in 1997.

As expected, the centrepiece of a package broadly welcomed by local politicians was the Prime Minister's announcement that around 2 million Hong Kong Chinese without UK travel documents will be able to visit Britain without visas.

But Mr Major went further by giving what he insisted was a firm guarantee that 7,000 mainly Indian and Pakistani potentially stateless ethnic minority residents would be able to come to Britain to live if the Chinese fulfilled their worst fears by putting them under pressure to leave the territory. And in a modest but powerfully symbolic move he promised to clear a legislative path to grant British citizenship to 27 wives and widows of Hong Kong soldiers who fought in the British Army in the Second World War.

In a strenuous, and apparently effective, effort to reassure the colony's population that Britain would retain "continued responsibilities" for Hong Kong after the handover, the Prime Minister also promised to "pursue every legal or other avenue" to enforce the 1984 Sino British Joint Declaration - including its provision for a democratic voice for the people of Hong Kong after 1997. Mr Major said that next summer the "eyes of the world" would be on Hong Kong as it reverted to China and declared: "Hong Kong will never have to walk alone."

The promise by Mr Major - who went further than before in firmly identifying the declaration as a legally enforceable treaty - raises the prospect of an action before the International Court of Justice or through the UN if China abolishes the elected Legislative Committee - as it says it is determined to do - without an adequate replacement.

However, the measures fall far short of the demands of many in the colony for full rights of UK residence for the 3 million holders of restricted British National Overseas passports.

Martin Lee, the leader of Hong Kong's largest political party, the Democrats, said he was "obviously happy" about the decision on visas. James Tien, from the business-oriented Liberal Party, said he hoped the move would be followed by other European countries.

Mr Major was given an enthusiastic reception during a walkabout at the Sha Tin shopping centre by several thousand ordinary Hong Kong residents - some shouting in Cantonese "thank you for the visas" - as he went on a handshaking tour of the crowd with the territory's governor Chris Patten.

In a speech to a businessmen's lunch in which Mr Major was passionate about the Hong Kong's dynamic ability to defy the predictions "of doomsters and gloomsters", the Prime Minister promised that British ministers would continue to say "in public and private" that it disagreed with China over its declared intention to dismantle the legislative committee and the territory's Bill of Rights.

British officials say they do not expect more than about 13,000 people a year to take advantage of visa-free access, which confers no rights of residence. There is little or no evidence of Hong Kong citizens using visitors' rights as a backdoor route to illegal immigration, but there was angry reaction from some backbench Tory MPs, who fear that many may now do so.

Home Office sources insisted, that if there was any evidence the concession was being abused, it would be withdrawn "at 24 hours' notice if necessary".