Hong Kong residents to get British visas after 1997

John Major at podium

China takes over Hong Kong next year

March 4, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT)

From CNN Correspondent Patricia Chew

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Hong Kong's permanent residents will continue to have visa-free entry into Britain after China takes control of the colony in 1997, British Prime Minister John Major promised Monday.

He urged other countries to follow his lead.

In a speech to the Hong Kong and British Chambers of Commerce, Major warned Beijing not to violate the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong, known as the Joint Declaration.

Hong Kong map

He emphasized that Britain will not tolerate a change in Hong Kong's laws or any dilution of its bill of rights.

"If in the future there were any suggestion of a breach in the Joint Declaration, we would mobilize the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue open to us," Major said. (146K AIFF sound or 146K WAV sound)

"Hong Kong will never have to walk alone," Major said.

On June 30, 1997, Britain's 155-year rule of Hong Kong will come to an end as its 99-year lease over the territory of 6 million people expires. At that time, Hong Kong is to be handed over to China.

The transfer of power is a result of the Joint Declaration agreement forged in 1984 between Major's predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, and Beijing. Under the terms of the agreement, China is to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and let it keep its capitalist system for 50 years after the handover.

Major at China meeting

Major was in Hong Kong on a two-day trip. Last week, the leader met with Chinese Premier Li Peng, calling on Beijing to respect Hong Kong's bill of rights and its elected legislature.

China wants the bill of rights, a cornerstone of Hong Kong's civil liberties, watered down after 1997 because it was drawn up without China's consent.

Mixed reactions

Reactions to Major's announcement in Britain and Hong Kong were mixed.

Members of Major's cabinet played down fears of a rise in illegal immigration, while a right-wing member of Parliament, Teresa Gorman, warned Britain to "prepare for the worst."

Many of the businessmen listening to Major's speech welcomed his announcement. But some lawmakers were less impressed, saying Major had not done enough to reassure Hong Kong residents and accusing him of abandoning the colony.

Hong Kong's often volatile stock market, meanwhile, barely moved; traders said the visa concessions had been expected.

However, Major did pack a few surprises.

He backed democratic changes introduced three years ago by Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten. At the time, China opposed the democratic proposals.

Major said the colony's elected Legislative Council, which is half way through its term but which China wants to scrap in 1997, must serve its full four years.

Also he said widows of Hong Kong servicemen who fought for Britain in World War II would receive British passports, and he would guarantee the colony's ethnic minorities the right to live in Britain if they feel pressured to leave.

news conference

But in a news conference later in the day, Major made no such commitment to democracy activists who fear they may be persecuted under the new regime.

British officials estimate there are only about 50 surviving war widows, and most of the 7,000 members of ethnic minorities -- mainly people of Indian and Pakistani descent - - do not want to leave Hong Kong.

Christopher Hammerbeck, director of the British Chamber of Commerce, applauded Major's first speech and said China must now give a similar commitment to support confidence in Hong Kong.

Alan Au, sales director of Cheerful Securities, was less enthusiastic, saying Major's message provided little comfort to most Hong Kong residents.

"It's just more talk from Britain," Au said. "While the concessions to the minorities and war widows are a little surprising, it will do little to reassure the vast majority who could feel an even deeper sense of abandonment."

"As for pursuing breaches of the Joint Declaration," he added, "What would Britain do? Send warships?"

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Reuters contributed to this report.

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