Letter: Hong Kong: Hurd urges cross-party unity

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Sir: In his article (13 May) Robin Cook criticises Chris Patten for failing to visit Peking to discuss his proposals for a more democratic Legislative Council (LegCo) before announcing them in October 1992. The calculation, claims Mr Cook, was that Peking would be "sucked along in the slipstream" and obliged to accept the arrangements as a fait accompli.

As Foreign Secretary at the time, I can testify that there was no such calculation. No one imagined that China could simply be bounced into accepting the proposals. They were just that - proposals. We made clear to the Chinese that we were willing to discuss them, and to amend them if necessary. We were careful to brief the Chinese about a week before Chris Patten announced the proposals publicly.

Was it, in retrospect, a miscalculation for the Governor not to go to Peking in advance? I do not believe so. He and I thought about this carefully at the time. After exhaustive consultation with the political parties in Hong Kong in the summer of 1992, Chris Patten concluded that he had to share his thinking on the electoral arrangements with LegCo and Hong Kong before going up to Peking. There was intense interest in these electoral arrangements in Hong Kong. To have attempted to negotiate behind the back of Hong Kong people entirely in secret, maybe for many months, would have invited mounting criticism in Hong Kong. We could not have sustained this in the Hong Kong of the 1990s, as we had found out in December 1991 when LegCo had thrown out an agreement on Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal negotiated in secret.

I do not myself believe that an agreement on the elections would have proved possible even if the Governor had gone to Peking before LegCo. After all, we later had marathon talks with China about the elections between April and December 1993. Those talks ultimately foundered because China was not prepared to subscribe to arrangements for the elections which we and Hong Kong regarded as free, open and fair. It was a disagreement which resulted not from our approach but from important differences with China on issues of principle.

In the end, the Governor's proposals were enacted into law not at Westminster but by the legislature in Hong Kong. But it has been a source of great strength to Hong Kong over the last four years that these proposals have enjoyed the support not just of the Conservative government, but of the Labour Party and others across the House of Commons.

It is important for Hong Kong that this united approach to the Hong Kong issue continues in the crucial remaining months of the transition.

Douglas Hurd CH, MP

(Witney, Con)

House of Commons

London SW1