The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Press Conference in Peking – 3 September 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s press conference, held in Peking on Tuesday 3rd September 1991.


The main purpose of my visit to Peking has been to sign with the Chinese Prime Minister the Memorandum of Understanding on the new Hong Kong Airport. The Memorandum was widely welcomed in Hong Kong and abroad. Without that Memorandum the airport project would not have gone ahead and without the airport Hong Kong would have been hamstrung. With it Hong Kong can be sure of having the airport it needs to ensure its future as a world financial and trade centre. For that purpose alone this visit was necessary and worthwhile.

My talks today with Chinese leaders have shown that although we do not share common values, we do have shared interests – Hong Kong foremost amongst them. The airport agreement opens up new prospects of cooperation in Hong Kong’s interests and that has been reflected in my discussions today.

Today we have also confirmed that Hong Kong should be able to open negotiations to include its own investment promotion and protection agreements, an important right if Hong Kong is to enhance its role as a centre for international trade and investment.

Hong Kong is a unique achievement, anyone who has ever been there will tell you that. Its continued success after 1997 will be a precious achievement for its own people, for China and for the rest of the world. The success of Hong Kong requires a dialogue with China, much of that dialogue is carried on directly between the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government. But the British government is responsible for Hong Kong until 1997 and it is our responsibility to conduct the dialogue at whatever level is necessary to achieve results.

My visit here today secures the implementation of the very important Memorandum of Understanding and has enable us to make the other progress that I have reported to you.

China is one of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council and as such we have a shared responsibility for handling many of the world’s most sensitive issues. We touched on a number of those issues in our talks today, we discussed arms control issues, in particular China’s commitment to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I urged China to support our initiative for an arms control register to ensure transparency of supply and therefore prevent the kind of build-up which allowed Iraq to invade Kuwait. The response from China was encouraging.

I was able to brief the Chinese leaders on my visit to the Soviet Union and on developments there. One lesson that I drew from that visit in my discussions with Premier Li Peng was that there is a global trend to more open and more accountable government, that trend is inevitable and growing.

It is against that background that I raised human rights. I told Premier Li Peng of a letter which I had received from a British opposition Member of Parliament, Bob Parry, who knows China well. I raised that letter to illustrate the strength of concern about human rights that exists across all strands of opinion in my country.

Specifically in our discussions I raised the situation in Tibet, I raised the treatment of religious believers in Tibet and elsewhere and I raised the detention of people in China for exercising the freedom of expression, predominantly student demonstrators. I also raised the cases of four detainees from Hong Kong. In our exchanges I made it clear that we will continue to pursue all these matters vigorously in the future.

I also raised with the Chinese leadership a number of individual cases which Amnesty International had particularly asked me to take up. These included members of the 1989 pro-democracy movement and five employees of a car factory, one of whom is reported to have been sentenced to 20 years in prison, the heaviest sentence known to have been imposed since June 1989. I asked Premier Li Peng to take a personal interest in all these cases.

Britain and China have strong commercial ties. I drew the attention of Chinese leaders to the important areas – energy, transport, telecommunications, aerospace, airports and petrochemicals – where British companies can offer the best quality at competitive prices.

The world has not forgotten the events of June 1989 but we face a choice, on the one hand we can make ourselves feel better by armchair denunciations of China, for which Hong Kong pays the price; on the other hand we can talk to Chinese leaders, in the interests of Hong Kong, in the interests of human rights and for the sake of a more peaceful world. I have no doubt which is the right choice to make.



QUESTION (Mike Brunson, ITN):

As you know, the Chinese dismiss the right of people to raise human rights issues with them, but in their press conference today they were saying there was no greater human right than to be able to feed every person in this country. Can you therefore give us just a little more detail of as it were the status on which you based your right to raise these issues with them?


There is a world-wide concern about human rights in a number of countries and amongst them China. I made the worldwide concern perfectly clear in my remarks today, they were free, frank and forthright exchanges. We agreed at the end of those exchanges that that dialogue between us on this issue would continue. Our Ambassador in Peking will pursue the matters that I raised today with Premier Li Peng. I shall continue to take a personal interest in those matters and ensure that they are pursued.

This is a dialogue that has begun with China, it will not go away, it will continue with us and I believe it will continue with other people as well. The world has a deep, a genuine and a continuing concern for human rights and that applies in China as elsewhere in the world.

QUESTION (Brian Barron, BBC TV):

As the leader of one of the Western world’s oldest democracies, is there any advice or words of wisdom you could offer to democracy supporters and activists in China at present?


The world is changing, we have seen that in the most dramatic way over the last two or three years and perhaps most especially over the last two or three weeks. There is a movement across the world for democracy and economic and political freedoms, That, like the world’s concern over human rights, is a movement that is not going to go away. Each country must find its own route in order to enshrine that democracy and to enshrine that freedom of expression and those economic and political freedoms. It is not for me to determine what the right way ahead is in China, but that there must be a way ahead I think is beyond doubt and that was clear from our discussions today that that is my opinion.

QUESTION (Sally Blythe, RTHK):

Bearing in mind the differences you have had with Chinese leaders over human rights would you as a result of your visit now say that relations with China are now back to normal, to their pre-1989 status?


We have discussed today some matters that are of important and very great interest both bilaterally and also particularly of interest to Hong Kong. It is not possible simply to step aside and say one will not deal with these important matters, if one were to seek to do that one would betray the interests of Hong Kong and that is not something that any British government, certainly not my British government, would ever do. We are concerned about the interests of Hong Kong and so it was necessary to have these discussions and reach the agreement that we have reached today.

But I have expressed my concern about a number of matters, that is well known and well understood in Peking and that dialogue will continue. But if I wish to express my concerns, if I wish to press those concerns, if I wish to make known to people the areas where I agree with them and the areas where I disagree with them then I must have a proper contact in order to do so. I believe that is the right way ahead.

QUESTION (Philip Stevens, Financial Times):

Premier Li Peng seemed to make it clear this morning at the signing of the Joint Declaration that he sees the Airport Agreement as a way to intensify Chinese influence and control over events in Hong Kong before 1997. If you don’t get deals on the outstanding issues, how are you going to prevent that increasing influence and control by China in Hong Kong?


As you will see from the communique that we have issued, we have specifically reaffirmed the Joint Declaration and the responsibilities that exist for Hong Kong with the British Government and the Hong Kong Government in advance of 1997. It has always been envisaged that there will be consultations on matters that straddle 1997; that was clearly understood at the time of the Joint Declaration, it is clearly understood now. The position remains now as it was then and has been expressly confirmed in the communique jointly signed by both of us today.

QUESTION (Andrew Higgins, The Independent):

Your predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, described Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom she could do business. How would you describe Premier Li Peng?


I have today agreed with Premier Li Peng the Airport Agreement; I have done so for the reason I set out. I think the answer therefore is self-evident.


As you are the most senior Western leader to visit China in the last two years, do you think that it will have any kind of impact on China’s relations with the Western world or Western nations in general?


I came here to discuss both international matters and direct bilateral matters but I return to the point that I made a few moments ago: you cannot make an impact upon people by not expressing your views to them. I have expressed my views. Time will tell what impact that has had. I hope it has had a positive impact.


Mr. Major you mentioned earlier today that the signing of the Memorandum marks the beginning of a new phase of the bilateral relations between China and Britain. What plans or measures are you going to take to increase that relationship between the two countries?


What we are seeking to do of course and the extent to which it particularly moves events forward is it that it moves forward the work in the Joint Liaison Group; it moves forward the work that was getting blocked and that was in danger of damaging the position of confidence in Hong Kong. That has now been unblocked by the Memorandum of Understanding we have signed today and also by the decisions we have taken, particularly on the Court of Final Appeal, a matter of immense interest and importance to ensure the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong and also the agreement that we will accelerate the work in the Joint Liaison Group to deal with the other matters that are as yet undetermined. We have also agreed that if matters stay in the Joint Liaison Group and there is great difficulty in reaching agreement, then the matters will swiftly be resolved to the two Foreign Secretaries of China and the United Kingdom for them to examine the matter at a political level and reach a conclusion.

QUESTION (Jim Munson, Canadian TV):

There may be some critics who feel that you have played into China’s hands, that you have come here and that you are playing around with the Chinese leaders today, that after two-and-a-half years you are the first Westerner who comes. How do you look upon those critics who say that you are playing into China’s hands? You have mentioned before and talked about dialogue on the question of human rights. Is dialogue enough? Don’t you want answers post the Tiananmen Square massacre? Don’t you want some sort of concrete answers on those dissidents who are languishing in Beijing prisons who spoke out on behalf of democracy the way that you speak out on behalf of democracy?


Let me take those points, starting with the second one:

The purpose of asking the questions is to get those answers and as I expressly stated a few moments ago, our discussion today on human rights is not the end of the matter; the ambassador will follow the matter up; I have asked the Premier to take a personal interest in the matter; I intend to follow the matter up. The purpose of asking these questions is to precisely achieve what you ask, the answers to the questions that we and other people in the west are asking.

On the first point about whether coming here plays into Chinese hands, you say some critics might say that. I suspect they are exactly the same critics who would say! “Why are you abandoning Hong Kong?” if I had let the Airport Agreement fall away, confidence drain away from Hong Kong and all the problems that would follow from that but when you have responsibility, you have to take action and not strike attitudes and that is what I have done today.


Did you discuss with the Chinese about ways of admitting China back into the international community?


We didn’t specifically discuss that but China of course is a member of the Permanent Five of the United Nations. The previous questioner said I was the first Western leader to come but he neglected to mention that Prime Minister Kaifu was here a short while ago, Mr. Andreotti will be arriving within a few days, Mrs. Thatcher – a very distinguished Western stateswoman – will also be here within a few days and no doubt others will as well. The world is seeking to express its views to China on a range of issues in the ways I believe that I have done today.

QUESTION (Chris Moncrieff, Press Association):

Prime Minister, you said your views on human rights were frank and forthright. How did Premier Li Peng respond? Was he angered or irritated?


I think that is a question for the Premier and not really for me but he listened to the points carefully that I made; he made a careful note of them. I am handing this evening, via the ambassador, details of the cases I raised to the Premier; he undertook that he would examine them. We must now wait and see what the result of that examination turns out to be.

QUESTION (Hong Kong Commercial Radio):

Mr. Prime Minister, in your statement tonight and the speech this morning, you reiterated the importance of Sino-British cooperation. Does it mean that there will now be cooperation with the Chinese, that the British type of government could not effectively administer Hong Kong?


Of course we can administer Hong Kong but we have to look to the medium- and long-term interests of Hong Kong. The airport, for example, is critically important to the future of Hong Kong; it involves investment that straddles 1997; the investors therefore need to know that there will be a satisfactory climate after 1997.

There are all sorts of perfectly legitimate matters that are commenced now that have a very long time frame in which it is very desirable from the point of view of investors to have an agreement. Those were the points that we were discussing.

But there are wider issues as well, of course. China and Great Britain have very substantial joint interests through the United Nations; we are both members of the Security Council; we therefore have a particularly sensitive responsibility for many of the world’s trouble spots. We have to liaise on difficulties to do with the problems in the Middle East. There were matters of liaison necessary over the war in Iraq. We cannot ignore those realities; they are areas where there is a degree of joint cooperation necessary and we have been cooperating and in those circumstances we must cooperate.

QUESTION (Barbara O’Neill, Sunday Times):

Prime Minister, do we yet know who will appoint the members of the independent Judicial Committee and will it be Chinese or English law?


I can’t give you the names of the people who are actually going to appoint those; I can tell you they will be independently appointed and it is English law that continues after 1997 and the appointments will be made independently under English law.


On the question of human rights, you said that yourself, your Foreign Minister, your ambassador in Peking will be pressing for answers from the Chinese Government. If you don’t get the answers you want, what action are you prepared to take?


I think you have to go back to what has happened on other occasions elsewhere in other parts of the world. Continually, people are pressed in other countries on the question of human rights and that pressure has yielded results as it continues and that is actually what we wish to see. We wish to see results, so it is the unrelenting, unremitting continuance of pressure that often yields results on human rights, so we will continue to press but don’t expect me to set out precisely the form of that. I am just going to make it clear to you that these are not matters that we will let drop, neither in my judgement will anybody else let them drop as well.

I suppose one example I could most usefully have given you is the example I was able to announce the other day and that is the release of Mrs. Gordievsky and her family from Moscow. That is something we have been pressing the Soviet authorities for for some years. I myself raised it first I think in 1989; Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has raised it repeatedly; I have had a number of discussions with the Soviet leaders over the years; and now we have a decision that Mrs. Gordievsky and her family can be released so this pressure does work and that is but one high-profile example of large numbers that could be given.

QUESTION (Robin Oakley, The Times):

Prime Minister, you described the Chinese response to your proposals for a UN register of arms sales as encouraging. Does that simply mean that the Chinese didn’t say “No” at this stage or does it mean you expect actual support for a UN Resolution and did Premier Li Peng give you any idea of a date for Chinese accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty?


On the latter point, we discussed that this morning and there was a degree of vagueness. It is being pursued this afternoon between the Foreign Secretary and the Chinese Foreign Secretary and it is probable that a decision for the Non-Proliferation Treaty will be before the end of this calendar year.

On the point about arms sales, there are two related matters: there is the arms register which will simply clarify who is selling what arms to whom and although we have not got a firm commitment I think there is a realistic prospect that we will get support from China for that proposition. Then, behind that, there are wider propositions that the United Nations are looking at concerning the sale of arms generally and they raise very serious and complex problems that have not yet had the expert or detailed discussions either in China or elsewhere that are necessary, so dates and conclusions on that are less clear. The Foreign Secretary may wish to add something on one or both of those points.


I think the Prime Minister has covered the first point.

On the second point, the Chinese made the argument, which is understandable, that any restrictions on arms sales have to be non-discriminative, they have to apply to everybody and as they argued, to a complete range of weapons but that is a different point from the immediate one which is support for the Prime Minister’s initiative in having a register so that there is transparency, openness, and everyone can see what is happening and on that, as the Prime Minister said, the Chinese response without being wholly definite was reasonably encouraging.

QUESTION (Associated Press):

Mr. Prime Minister, did you invite Premier Li Peng to make a reciprocal visit and if so, how do you think that would be accepted in Great Britain? And if not, why not?


That matter did not come up at all in our conversation today and was not discussed.

QUESTION (Julie Maplish, ATV News – Hong Kong):

Prime Minister, I understand from your comments that ties between Britain and China haven’t been normalised as far as you are concerned. Under what circumstances would you normalise relations or have relations with the current leadership that ordered the June 4th crackdown been permanently fractured?


Let me make that clear because I think you may have a false impression. There is a lot of normal traffic going through in terms of the relationship between China and my country and indeed China and all the Western countries but because that normal commercial and political traffic continues does not mean that we have withdrawn our concerns or that we cease to express our concerns either about the past events that caused such a rupture in our relationship in 1989 or the humans rights or arms sales problems that have been the subject of frequent discussion between our two countries, but we have to live in the world as it is and we have to do business – and I don’t mean business necessarily in the commercial sense. We have to deal with large countries like China where we have joint interests and the illustration I gave earlier of our joint interests through the United Nations is in any case the best illustration I can give you. It is in everyone’s interest that we pursue those joint arrangements and that we normalise arrangements on this matter and they have been normalised and the fact that that is so puts us in a better position to continue to express clearly and bluntly the concerns that we have on those issues that have been raised so frequently by questioners this evening and that is what we are doing. There is a general normalisation of relations.

QUESTION (Geoffrey Crowther, South China Morning Post):

I was just curious, Mr. Prime Minister, why is there no mention of human rights in the joint communique you have issued this evening?


The joint communique is an agreed document. The observations that I made about human rights were my observations to the Premier which he is considering and responding but the joint communique is an agreed document to which we have both put our names. The question therefore would be more aptly directed to the Premier than to me.