How to hold China in our hands

The transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong is an opportunity for bridge-building with Peking, argues Robin Cook
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The Independent Online
Forget for a moment the strident debate over loss of sovereignty to Brussels. Discussion of foreign policy a year from now will be preoccupied with a transfer of British sovereignty to Peking. On 1 July 1997 Britain is obliged by treaty and by the Joint Declaration to return sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. It will be a historic moment for both Hong Kong and China, but it ought also to provide a valuable opportunity for the modern world to pierce the growing insularity of press and political debate in Britain.

Viewed from the other side of the globe, our present angst over whether we can bear to work with our immediate neighbours appears a pathetic failure to understand the skill of the industrial and economic challenge from the Far East. Every year China is adding to its industrial workforce the equivalent of the population of a decent-sized European country. Shanghai alone probably contains more construction sites for commercial and industrial development than the whole of Britain. The potential of the Chinese economy is awesome.

It is false antithesis to say Britain is required to make a choice between trade with China and commitment to Hong Kong. For the present, Hong Kong itself is much more important to our economy, taking three times more exports and accounting for 10 times as much British investment as the whole of China. In the longer term, a successful transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong, on terms that genuinely protect the human rights of the people and the prosperity of their economy, will enable Hong Kong to be Britain's bridge to China rather than a barrier to political understanding.

The Joint Declaration signed by Mrs Thatcher in 1984 is based on the principle that, after transfer of sovereignty, Hong Kong and China will be "one country but two systems". The treaty confers on Hong Kong the right to maintain its distinctive legal, economic, and political systems for 50 years after transfer.

The unease that can be heard in Hong Kong arises from doubts over whether two such radically different systems can really co-exist within one country. The degree of difference is illustrated by the case history of Han Dong Fang, who was imprisoned for leading a march of railway workers to Tiananmen Square in support of a student demonstration. In an experience shared by other dissidents, he was placed in a cell with a criminal suffering from TB and two months later had caught the infection. He was released when thought to be dying but saved by the invitation of the AFL-CIO to America, where he received treatment including the removal of one lung. Hundreds of others arrested in the crackdown after Tiananmen are still in prison with sentences stretching into the next century.

China is anxious to take the place in the world community to which its size and growing economic power entitle it. Representations from the world community on human rights therefore can have an effect. As a result of repeated exchanges with international jurists, court procedure from next year will be based on the presumption of innocence and the separation of the function of judge from that of prosecution. The British consul in Peking is providing rare help with training for the new procedures, despite the familiar efforts of the British government to undermine their work by eroding their budget.

Yet it is not so much pressure from outside China as pressure from within their own economy that may force the pace on human rights. China is deliberately targeting joint ventures in hi-tech sectors to promote technology transfer, but such industries also promote a culture of innovation and information exchange. The different rates of economic growth across China have produced hundreds of millions of migrant workers escaping control of the localised structures of the party, and also provoked an increasing need for regional pluralism. Even a Marxist - perhaps especially a Marxist - would be obliged to recognise that such huge, economic and social forces must force change on a political structure of hierarchical discipline and centralised authority.

The contradiction between the different degrees of economic and civil freedoms is demonstrated by the fate of Xi Yang, a Hong Kong-based reporter serving 12 years in a Chinese prison for "stealing state secrets", which in this case is thought to be a reference to his speculation on the size of China's foreign reserves. It is hard to see how repression of such basic financial journalism can survive the emerging financial markets or the construction of the new multi-storey stock exchange in Shanghai.

In the meantime it is essential that Britain leaves in place in Hong Kong democratic structures that will help to preserve its differences. The central outstanding issue of whether such structures will survive Britain's departure revolves around the future of the Legislative Council.

Chris Patten was appointed Governor by John Major with a deliberate intention of signalling a break from what was perceived as Foreign Office appeasement of China. As Governor he has taken advantage of his remoteness from Central Office to pursue impeccable social democrat policies, dramatically increasing official spending on health and education and improving pension provision. It is tempting to contrast the evident popularity that such policies have brought him in Hong Kong, with the unpopularity of his colleagues at home who have followed the reverse policies.

Chris Patten's popularity in China is another matter. Shortly after his arrival he announced new arrangements for election to a more democratic LegCo without even visiting Peking. The calculation was that Peking would be sucked along in the slipstream and obliged to accept the new arrangements as established fact. It has proved a miscalculation. China has ever since persisted in its determination to scrap the LegCo elected on arrangements to which it did not agree and to replace it with an appointed LegCo.

Such a step would be bad for the people of Hong Kong, who would see their democratic choice of councillors overturned and international business confidence dented. It would be bad also for China, as the message broadcast by the world media gathered for the transfer ceremony would be dominated by the removal of elected representatives and would reinforce a repressive image of China. It would be bad, too, for Britain, who would be seen by the world to have left Hong Kong without ensuring the survival of democratic structures.

The present Conservative government cannot wash their hands of their responsibility for the future of a LegCo elected under arrangements which they approved. If the Conservatives insist on remaining in office for the last year before the transfer of sovereignty, they must devote to Hong Kong at least a fraction of the energy they invest in their divisions over Europe. In particular, they must explain how they propose to put back on the rails a through train for democracy in Hong Kong beyond the handover ceremony.

The writer is shadow foreign secretary.