Britain’s Doors Only Partly Open, Howe Tells Hong Kong

Times Staff Writer

With pressure mounting on Britain to open its doors to the increasingly jittery people of Hong Kong, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe disclosed Monday that London is drawing up plans to take in a small portion of the colony’s population.

Howe also said that in the event of an “extreme situation” after China takes control of Hong Kong in 1997, Britain would not “close its door” but would mobilize the international community to help resettle the population if the number wanting to flee was more than Britain could cope with on its own.

But Howe told a group of leading Hong Kong businessmen and community leaders at a luncheon that despite the added stability such assurances would give, “the plain fact is that there is simply no way that a British government could grant to several million people the right to come and live in Britain. . . . We would never know how many of those might present themselves for settlement as a matter of right, not just in the next eight years but over the coming decades.”

The audience jeered Howe at the end of his speech.


The so-called right of abode has become a critical issue for residents of the British colony since the June 3-4 massacre in central Beijing, where Chinese soldiers violently suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands.

Of the nearly 6 million residents of Hong Kong, about 3.25 million are entitled to have British Overseas Passports, a travel document that does not give the holder the right to live in Britain. The remainder, most of whom were not born in the colony, are not even entitled to that much.

Since the crackdown in Beijing, politicians in Hong Kong have stepped up their appeals to London to provide an insurance policy for the colony’s residents by guaranteeing a right of admission for those holding Hong Kong British passports.

Howe said the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is working on a plan designed to give “some reassurance.” The plan will “make some provision for people in both the private and public sectors on the basis not simply of connections with Britain but also the value of service to Hong Kong.”


Special Consideration for Some

Howe gave no additional details of the plan. It has been known for some time that the British planned to extend a right of residence to members of the Royal Hong Kong Police and key civil servants who would, presumably, find it impossible to continue working once China assumes control of the colony.

Officials said they are now talking about as many as 100,000 key personnel being given residence in Britain, including financiers and businessmen as well as public servants.

While this may reassure those at the top of Hong Kong organizations, critics point out that such a plan would sharply divide the colony between rich and poor. Also, the plan would benefit those key public and private figures who would presumably have the least difficulty resettling in countries such as the United States and Canada.


Reflecting these concerns, a group of 100 Hong Kong pop singer s announced Monday that they would not be interested in taking British citizenship unless the offer is made to everyone.

In his speech, Howe also said that in light of the Beijing massacre, Britain will have to re-examine with China the portion of the draft Basic Law for Hong Kong, a kind of constitution, that would give China the right to declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong after 1997.

“This article has given rise to great anxiety in Hong Kong in light of the recent events in China,” Howe said. “There is no doubt that it needs to be thoroughly re-examined.”

He also raised the possibility of speeding up the process of elections to the Legislative Council, the colony’s legislative body, which is now composed of members appointed by the governor or nominated by professional groups.


Howe denied that Britain’s refusal to grant the right of abode is racist.

“It dismays me that some have suggested that this is a matter of race. It is nothing of the sort. It is a practical problem on an enormous scale” that would test Britain’s capacity in housing, employment and transportation, he said.

After he finished speaking, a businessman, Albert Ho of the Hong Kong Affairs Society, jumped to his feet and denounced the foreign secretary. Using an expletive to describe the speech, he said it was an “insult to the intelligence of Hong Kong Chinese.”

Ho was escorted from the hall by Special Branch police detectives.


Another guest, political activist Lee Wing Tat, shouted at Howe: “You say you cannot give permission to 3.25 million people to settle in Britain. . . . You will be handing them over to a bloody and suppressive government.”