Prescott paves Labour's way to Hong Kong

Aware that the fallout from Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty looms as one of the most pressing issues to confront an incoming Labour government, John Prescott, the party's deputy leader, is to visit China and Hong Kong next week.

Mr Prescott's visit follows an intensive trip to Hong Kong and China last May by Robin Cook, the shadow foreign secretary, which was dominated by questions of British-nationality rights for Hong Kong residents. Mr Cook pledged that a future Labour government would go further than the present administration in offering the right of settlement in Britain to ethnic minorities whose status was threatened by China.

Mr Prescott is likely to find that this remains a live issue. It will also feature in talks that the Governor, Chris Patten, is to have with ministers in London later in the week.

However, the deputy Labour leader, who has his eye on heading a new Department of Economic Affairs, appears more anxious to talk about trade issues. In China he will be specifically dealing with trading ties to his constituency in Hull.

In Hong Kong there is an acute awareness that Mr Major's government might not last until 30 June when British rule ends. This adds to the lame- duck feeling surrounding Mr Patten's governorship.

Interest in Labour's position on Hong Kong matters is therefore reasonably high but tempered by the far greater interest in the attitude of the new sovereign power.

Mr Prescott has yet to firm up his schedule of meetings, but, as well as meeting the usual array of local politicians, he is hoping to see Tung Chee-hwa, the territory's new head of government who has held only one meeting with a foreign official since his selection last month. Mr Prescott knows Mr Tung, a shipping magnate, from his days representing the National Union of Seamen.

China has sought to break the long-standing bipartisan policy on Hong Kong and may take the opportunity of the Prescott visit to urge an incoming Labour government to adopt what it sees as a more co-operative stance towards transitional matters affecting the territory.

If so, Mr Prescott can expect to be received at very senior levels of the Chinese government.