British Minister Jeered on Arrival in Hong Kong
Thousands of Hong Kong residents jeered and booed British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe on Sunday as he arrived here in an effort to calm a wave of anxiety that has gripped the British colony since China violently crushed pro-democracy demonstrations a month ago.
Howe told a news conference that he had traveled here to “reaffirm Britain’s determination to secure a democratic and prosperous future” for the colony’s 5.5 million people.
In meetings with Hong Kong’s leaders, Howe said they would be “working out together what we can realistically do to meet your anxieties today and in the future.”
“You have no stauncher friend than Britain,” he pledged in his arrival statement.
Greeted by Demonstrators
But as Howe left the airport, a throng of more than 5,000 demonstrators raised fists and shouted slogans in Chinese suggesting that Britain is abandoning Hong Kong at a crucial juncture. Another crowd marched on Government House on Hong Kong Island, where Howe is staying during his three-day visit.
At the airport press conference, Howe made no mention of the most burning issue here: the right of Hong Kong residents with British passports to live in Britain if they decide to flee Hong Kong, which will become part of China on July 1, 1997.
Citing the strain of resettling more than 3.25 million passport holders, Britain has refused Hong Kong citizens the “right of abode.” One result has been a flood of people seeking residence in the United States and Canada before the 1997 deadline.
Jolted by Study
After the trauma of the massacre in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square and its aftermath, Hong Kong residents were further jolted Saturday when the British Parliament released the results of a six-month study, which said that the territory’s residents should not be given the right to live in Britain because, if an exodus resulted in 1997, it was not realistic “to suppose the United Kingdom alone can accommodate so large an influx of people as would be involved.”
Instead, the report called on the international community to give guarantees to resettle the Hong Kong population in the event of a crisis.
Rosanna Tam, a legislative leader in the colony, said the British parliamentary report “has discredited the time-honored tradition of duty and honor.”
China has promised as part of its agreement with Britain in handing over the colony to respect Hong Kong’s different economic and political system for a period of at least 50 years.
Fear Freedom Would Be Lost
But in recent weeks, Chinese leaders have accused Hong Kong political activists of helping foment the recent unrest in China and providing comfort and assistance to China’s underground leadership. Many Hong Kong residents fear that China, in seeking to stamp out such activities, will find the maintenance of Hong Kong’s relatively free atmosphere intolerable.
Organizers of Sunday’s protests against Howe said they were disappointed at the small turnout. They had predicted crowds of half a million, but only about 5,000 took part in each of the two demonstrations.
In addition, a crowd of about 1,000 foreigners, mainly British, held a separate demonstration to press Howe and the government in London to grant the right of abode to Hong Kong’s residents. They wore yellow T-shirts saying, in both English and Chinese, “Hong Kong Is Our Home.”
“We need a passport that really is a passport,” Elsie Tsui, an urban council member, told the rally. At the moment, she said, a Hong Kong resident with a British passport is not even entitled to the services of a British Embassy when traveling abroad.
No Concrete Solutions
Although Howe pledged to help allay anxiety in the colony “and safeguard its way of life,” he offered nothing concrete to back up his pledge.
One possible solution being suggested by the Hong Kong Chinese leadership is that Britain renegotiate the terms of the treaty under which Hong Kong will be incorporated into China.
An organization called Hong Kong People for Hong Kong, which claims 600,000 members, tried to present Howe with a petition demanding a reopening of the treaty talks to provide greater democracy in the colony. But Howe refused to accept the letter, which was later given to a member of the British governor’s staff.
While in Hong Kong, Howe will also attempt to come to grips with the problem of Vietnamese “boat people” who have been flooding the colony for the past year. There are now about 47,000 Vietnamese refugees waiting in Hong Kong for resettlement in the West.
There was a flurry of diplomatic reports over the weekend suggesting that Britain has reached an understanding with Vietnam to permit mandatory repatriation of “boat people” who are determined to be economic migrants rather than political refugees. Most refugees reaching Hong Kong are from northern Vietnam, and about 90% of the “boat people” screened so far have been rejected for refugee status.
Under the reported terms of the agreement, the migrants would be automatically returned to Vietnam after screening, and Vietnam has promised to accept them without threat of retaliation.
The United States told a refugee conference in Geneva last month that it remains unalterably opposed to the forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees. Many have threatened suicide if forced to return home.