Below is the text of Mr Major’s on the record briefing held in Bangkok on Thursday 29th February 1996.
I thought it was probably better just to sit down for a few minutes And talk you through the scribbled notes I have made rather than a couple of minutes standing up dealing with one or two odd questions.
I had a very worthwhile meeting with Li Peng. There are a series of different points I think I’d make:
There has been a continuing improvement in British/Chinese relationships over the last year or so, quite markedly so. The Vice-Premier, Qichen, came to the United Kingdom in October, Malcolm Rifkind went to China in January and Michael Heseltine will be going back to China in May when we expect he will take with him the biggest business delegation I can ever recall leaving the UK of around 250 businessmen.
Most of the discussion we had this evening was about Hong Kong, not all of it but most of it. There has been very welcome progress on a number of issues recently, let me list some of them:
Better contacts between Chinese officials and Hong Kong civil servants; arrangements for the transfer of defence responsibilities. There are a number of outstanding matters: we agreed tonight that we will continue to accelerate the work with China to resolve the remaining issues before the hand-over.
There are some areas where we still have concern over Hong Kong; one of them is the question of a bill of rights and the future of the legislature, LECCO. I said to the prime minister that Hong Kong’s success had been founded not only on economic success but on the rule of law and continuity and stability was a very important part of a successful transition in 1997.
We touched on wider political dialogue. There was quite a substantial dialogue. We are both members of the Security Council of the UN of course, of the Permanent Five, and a range of other bilateral political contacts. We touched, of course, on human rights as we always do on these occasions and we touched on areas where we are looking for closer economic cooperation.
In reply to my comments, the prime minister said that he too saw a marked improvement in the relations between Britain and China. He confirmed that after the hand-over in 1997 Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy; he confirmed that they Chinese government would not send its own officials to govern Hong Kong; and he confirmed that they would not take any tax revenue from Hong Kong. These points have been touched on before, they were confirmed very clearly – a very welcome confirmation – this evening.
I also raised the sensitive question of the choice of the chief executive designate with the prime minister and told him how sensitive and important that choice was if it was to carry the confidence of people across Hong Kong. He wasn’t able to tell me when the choice would be made. I turn to the Chinese speakers to express a contrary view if they wish to because they would have heard the original Chinese – certainly the flavouring of the interpretation of what the prime minister said seemed to me to be warmer and more understanding about the need for a sensitive choice of chief executive than anything we have heard before. I don’t know if one of the Chinese speakers want to confirm that.
I think he went further in saying it must be somebody who the people of Hong Kong are hoping for and who is acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.
So that was a helpful movement.
He didn’t indicate any movement in the Chinese-position on LEGCO or on the bill of rights. I state that so that colleagues know what the position is.
It was a very useful discussion, there was a very good atmosphere during the discussion. The assurances were very welcome; some of them we have had before but they were nevertheless welcome being presented in such clear-cut terms and it was a good opportunity to put face-to-face the concerns that exist in Hong Kong as the hand-over approaches and it was an extremely useful background discussion to me since I propose to go from here to Hong Kong when I will meet and address LEGCO in a couple of days.
We touched, in addition to that, on a number of international matters. I don’t think you will be much interested in them by and large. We talked about the opportunities for future economic development. There is no doubt that the economic relationship between China and the United Kingdom, which was quite chilly a year or so ago, has warmed up pretty dramatically and I think that was extremely welcome.
Those are the only points that I particularly wish to mention. There is nothing else of any significance that I would wish to say to you about it.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Prime Minister, how do you compare today’s talks with the last time you had discussions with Li Peng I think five years ago? I seem to recall it turned out to be rather [indistinct].
Much warmer. A great deal of progress has been made. There was a huge amount of mutual suspicion then. Everything in the garden isn’t solved by any means, there are still areas of concern – the bill of rights and LEGCO I mentioned – but the overall atmosphere has changed and improved quite a lot and the economic relationship which at one stage looked as though it was being put in cold storage, has clearly improved. That started with Michael Heseltine’s visit last year, which was very, successful; it was quite a gamble that visit at the time but it turned out to be very successful and Li Peng indicated again tonight that he was looking forward to Michael going back with 250 businessmen in May.
Did you suggest anything to Li Peng, Prime Minister, in terms of his need or China’s need to speak out publicly in order to restore some of the ebbing confidence in Hong Kong about the commercial future? Did you say that as well as private assurances there was a need to speak out?
Yes. He was confident of that. It emerged quite gratuitously and what he had to say about the appointment of the chief executive. I think they are aware of that. China wants the hand-over to be a success as we do and I think some of the assurances that they have given – for example taking no tax revenue from Hong Kong, not putting in Chinese officials to take over the jobs of Hong Kong officials for example, being sensitive about the appointment of the chief executive – all of those were points that were directly relevant to restoring confidence in Hong Kong.
I am not suggesting that there are no areas of disagreement, I am suggesting that the areas of agreement have been enlarging over the last few months.
The head of the [indistinct] News Agency has said that Britain should not stir up trouble for Hong Kong’s smooth transition and I think the implication of that is that by taking the stand on LEGCO that the governor and the British Government have, this is stirring up trouble. Do you recognise that?
All I can say is I don’t know what news agencies say. That wasn’t the flavour I got from the prime minister.
Would you say either on the record or on background whether you are at least relieved that the royal divorce is underway?
No, neither on the record nor on background. It was an extremely good try. I will not comment on that until I have been properly briefed on what is happening; then I may say something but I don’t wish to without that.
Can I also ask about the opening of talks today between John Hume, Gerry Adams and the IRA? They are talking about wanting to take the peace process forward, that was what they said afterwards. Is that hopeful?
We have to wait and see. These days I am not quite so much impressed by mere words, I shall be more impressed by action. We have set out the way in which we intend to proceed. Sinn Fein have the opportunity to join in that process if they abandon their position on the ceasefire, if they begin to talk and meet the six principles, including the points on decommissioning but the choice is theirs.
What is now clear to Sinn Fein is that there is a way in which they can come into the democratic process if they wish but if they choose to stay out of the democratic process the democratic process is not going to stop and wait for them so the choice is theirs. I am not going to comment on miscellaneous press conferences they may have, briefings they may give, I will comment on action when and if they deliver it.
When you were talking to Li Peng, did you broach the issue of visas and also the question of the Vietnamese boat people? Were they discussed in any way?
There were some other things I don’t wish to talk about this evening that we talked about, yes, but I am sure we will talk about those over the next few days.