Douglas Hurd said the Government saw "no good reason" why China should dismantle Hong Kong's new electoral arrangements, but his old boss, Sir Edward Heath, told the Foreign Secretary to be "realistic".
The recent local government elections and those due in September for the Legislative Council were "a terrible mistake", the former Prime Minister said. Britain had ruled Hong Kong for 150 years and had waited until now to introduce constitutional reforms. "You can't get away with that. I'm sorry but you can't. We must be realistic."
Sir Edward, who spent a fortnight over Easter visiting China, Vietnam and Hong Kong, thanked Mr Hurd for the "quiet and conciliatory way" he had introduced the debate. Some in the Far East were "worried" about the debate, he said.
Their fears were groundless. Trade with China and the commercial future of Hong Kong - now the world's eighth-largest trading economy - were a greater preoccupation of speakers than human rights.
Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, gave Sir Edward a tentative prod over Tibet, and asked if he did not think that the people of Tibet ought to be the ones to decide their form of government, whether the Dali Lama or some other system.
"It would be fashionable for them to have a referendum," quipped Sir Edward. "I don't know whether he would accept the result or not. It may very well be that the majority of people in Tibet don't want the Dali Lama back." With Mr Mullin protesting, he added that the Dali Lama could not complain. If he wanted to go back to Tibet he could, but it must be as a spiritual leader. The Dali Lama had been told that by China 10 years ago.
Both Sir Edward and Mr Hurd dismissed speculation about revolutionary change and the break-up of China. "China is not the Soviet Union," the Foreign Secretary said. There was a strong cultural and racial identity and strong national institutions committed to keeping the nation intact. Mr Hurd said that last week he had urged vice-premier Qian Qichen to help speed up the work of the Joint Liaison Group preparing for the colony's handover. "There is still a great deal to be done, and little time to do it." A priority would be the issues related to the rule of law and particularly the establishment of a Court of Final Appeal - agreed in principle by the Chinese in 1991 but stalled over the legislation. In the next few days there would be extra talks on the Bill proposed by Governor Chris Patten.
Sir Edward warned against "dictating" to China about the court. Most people in Hong Kong, particularly businessmen, just wanted to get on with a smooth handover, he said. "They don't want another row. This is the danger so far as the Supreme Court is concerned."
Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said those watching the debate from Hong Kong would be disappointed there was no new Government initiative to break the "deadlock" with China. Pointing out that the root of the anxiety there was the "distressing events" in Tiananmen Square six years ago, he said nothing would go further to boost confidence than for China to accede to the international convention on civil and political rights.
At the time, the crushing of the Tiananmen Square disaster was generally described as a massacre, but Mr Cook too was being diplomatic.
He said Governor Patten had Labour's full backing in trying to achieve open government and agreed on the importance of establishing the Court of Final Appeal. "It is crucial to Hong Kong's ability to prosper."
Sir David Steel, for the Liberal Democrats, condemned the decision not to give full British citizenship rights to the 7,000 non-Chinese ethnic minority who had British passports. He hoped Britain would continue to raise human rights questions with China. "We can't just pretend that events like Tiananmen Square didn't happen."
Illustrating the change of economic thinking in China, Sir Edward said that while panda-watching on his Easter visit he asked for two - in 1974 Chairman Mao had given him a pair that became celebrities at London Zoo.
His guides said pandas were available for one, five or 10 years - at a cost of $1m a year. "I said Chairman Mao gave them to me," the former prime minister recounted, to laughter. He said he was then told: "Ah well, things have changed. We now have a market economy."
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