Major offers visa deal for Hong Kong

Countdown to 1997: Prime Minister tries to silence colony's critics by lifting restrictions on two million citizens
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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

John Major last night strongly rejected charges that he was abandoning Hong Kong to its fate as he prepared to announce today that another two million Hong Kong residents will be able to visit Britain without visas after the colony's handover in 1997.

The Prime Minister, who faces sharp criticism from liberals when he meets members of the 60 strong Legislative committee today, will announce that the two million Hong Kong Chinese who will hold non-British "special autonomous region" passports after the handover will not require a visa to come to Britain.

The move, which will be widely welcomed in Hong Kong as well as in Peking, has been urged on ministers by the Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten. It is is expected to lead to other countries granting visa free access to special passport holders and is likely to be taken up by no more than 13,000 Hong Kong citizens a year. The removal of the visa restriction gives no right of residence and there is little evidence of Hong Kong citizens using visits to Britain as a back door route to illegal immigration.

Mr Major, speaking at a dinner for 150 of the colony's elite last night, took issue with criticisms voiced yesterday by Martin Lee,a member of LegCo and chairman of the Democratic Party, that Britain was failing "to fight for the territory's institutions" and avoiding a confrontation with China.

Mr Lee said in an article in the South China Morning Post that Mr Major had "agreed to disagree" with the Chinese Premier Li Peng at their meeting last week over Peking's refusal to keep Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and elected legislative committee after 1997.

The Prime Minister told the dinner last night that it was not true that Britain was "putting Hong Kong "to the back of the cupboard" and added: "We didn't agree to disagree. We just disagreed." Mr Major said the government would continue to press Peking for full implementation of the 1984 Joint Declaration which embodies democratic principles and the UN Convention of Human Rights.

In his address to the legislature, Mr Major will seek to reassure Hong Kong that Britain will not cut it adrift when the takeover occurs.

Mr Patten told reporters that the Prime Minister would underline Britain's continued commitment to Hong Kong after the handover and added: "For Britain there is no greater commercial interest in East Asia than the continued success of Hong Kong. And that commercial success is directly related to Hong Kong's decency and openness as a free and plural society under the rule of law. Undermine the rule of law and Hong Kong's civil liberties and Hong Kong becomes a less successful centre and therefore Britain's commercial interests suffer as well as the quality of life in Hong Kong."

While declining to confirm that Mr Major would lift the visa restrictions today, Mr Patten pointed out that without their being lifted there was a danger that the 400,000 visitors to Hong Kong from Britain could find they have to secure visas.

Meanwhile, Mr Patten said that Mr Major would not attend any "functions which have anything to do with Conservative Party fund raising" while he was in Hong Kong. The Governor said that only one person on a list of reported Tory donors put out by the Labour Party would be at his dinner last night-Lee Ka Shing, who as one of the richest and most successful men in Hong Kong was a natural guest at the dinner.