The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Hong Kong Speech – 3 March 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech, made after Chris Patten’s speech, in Hong Kong on Sunday 3rd March 1996.


Mr. Governor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Chris said, in an understatement that I have known so well over many years, that it had sometimes been a dull time. It has been a dull week. I have been working up to this evening and I am glad to be here but the last time Chris and I spoke together he referred to just a moment or so ago. We spoke side by side of course politically on many occasions but that time in Huntingdon he referred to I think was probably from memory the first time that we spoke side by side on the same day at the same meeting with the same intent and as Chris generously indicated, on that occasion I became the candidate for Huntingdon and he didn’t and I was a little surprised by this latterly and I asked, after this great event, of my former selection committee when they became my executive committee prior to the 1979 election; and said: “I am very pleased to be your candidate but why did you choose me and not Chris Patten?” and they said: “Well, Chris Patten was so good we thought he’d get a seat anywhere!” [laughter and applause] – and he did of course and latterly, to my very great regret but to your very great fortune, Bath made one of the worst decisions in its electoral history and I lost him from my Government and you gained him as your Governor.

I might just tell you perhaps a little – to his embarrassment – of how that came about. Chris and I met the morning after the night before. We had won the election but we had lost the seat because of population changes in Chris’ s constituency of Bath and I said to Chris there were three options: he could stay in the United Kingdom and very probably fight the first promising by-election that occurred though these days in British electoral history no by-election is always a terribly attractive proposition; the second option, if he felt inclined, was that he could go into the House of Lords and back into the Cabinet after the 1992 election; the third option was that he could go to Hong Kong and look after that crucial period between 1992 and 1997 in that unique city, that unique territory, with all the obvious traumas and difficulties to be overcome and of those three decisions, after Chris had left me to consider it, I in my own mind had not a shred of doubt what decision he would take and that was indeed the decision he took. I believe it was the right decision for him and the right decision for Hong Kong and I am delighted to be here as his guest this evening.

I have visited Hong Kong a few times over the years since I first came here to carry out a bank inspection at Standard Chartered Bank where I was less well received than I have been on this occasion [laughter]. As Chris said, I plan to make a speech tomorrow that I hope will contain one or two things of interest to the present company and other people in Hong Kong. This evening it is late and after dinner so let me just say a few things to you.

Hong Kong by any reckoning is one of the greatest cities in the world, it is a city moving despite all the challenges into its prime, that prime lies ahead of it, not behind – not perhaps today but the New York of Asia for the 21st century and for many years to come. Many of the people who have made that possible from relatively modest beginnings are in the room tonight, many who share the responsibility in different aspects for Hong Kong’ s future are here this evening as well, a very heavy responsibility and a very big prize is at stake.

Whenever I come to Hong Kong, I am struck essentially by three things by how much have achieved since I was last here; I saw this afternoon the Tsing Ma Bridge and the new airport, an astonishing series of changes since I signed the Memorandum of Understanding just four or so years ago; I sometimes think Hong Kong is the only city where you can change the skyline over the weekend and no-one comments, one comes back and sees these extraordinary changes; secondly, by how convincing you have always managed to confound the pessimists who are always there to predict the worst of futures for Hong Kong; and thirdly, by the sheer uniqueness of Hong Kong. I don’t just mean the size or the number of skyscrapers, I mean the vitality of the institutions and the way of life, the chemistry of boundless business energy, business energy allied both to the rule of law and the principles of free trade and that has always seemed to me to be the very nub of Hong Kong’s transition and that is what we need to preserve both in the short term and in the long term and I am confident that that can be done.

I don’t come here from the other side of the world to doubt the difficulties and the challenges that Hong Kong faces in 1997, I don’t do that for a second. It is a difficult enterprise that you and we are engaged in, difficult for Britain, difficult for China but difficult above all for Hong Kong. It was always going to be difficult but I see no reason to be daunted by those challenges.

In the last 50 years or so, Hong Kong has achieved a huge amount often against the odds; providing current uncertainties are resolved with pragmatic good sense, those achievements will roll on. I am myself confident about Hong Kong’s future because I believe that the nature of Hong Kong is the future, it represents the values of the future of Asia, economic liberty and freedom, openness, tolerance and decency. Those values can’t be defeated and they can’t be turned back and if I saw one thing above all else when I attend the Asia/Europe summit over the last few days in Bangkok, I saw the extent to which the eyes of some of the Europeans began to open as they saw the reality of what was actually happening in Asia not just in one centre or another – uniquely of course in Hong Kong – but right across the whole of Asia, a changing attitude, a changing level of prosperity, a changing nature, a determination to pursue economic prosperity in a way that I think many people in Europe had not imagined; they had not comprehended the sheer scale of dramatic change that is taking place in this part of the world and it was very striking to see that at the Asia/Europe summit in Bangkok just a day or so ago.

Let me return, if I may for a moment, to Hong Kong and let me say this to you tonight, to the people who in many ways are the epitomy of what Hong Kong is, the people who in public service or in business or in politics are the driving forces of what Hong Kong presents to the world and what it is for itself and its own citizens; let me say this both to you and to the future sovereign power:

The United Kingdom takes – and will continue to take after 1997 -, the closest possible interest in the future of Hong Kong. That has been so in the past and it will remain so in the future. There is no magic barrier that comes down on 30 June 1997 that will cut off the interest or the affection or the concern of the United Kingdom for what happens in Hong Kong after that date. You cannot cut adrift an instinct or a blood tie that has existed in the fashion of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong simply because the legal sovereignty of the territory changes; that does and there is nothing that we can do about that but equally, there is nothing we can or would wish to do about that ongoing affection and relationship both personal and practical and political and in terms of hard cash and hard investment that exists between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong and is going to go on existing for many years after 1997. Success is not only measured by Hong Kong’s life at midnight on 30 June next but by what it will be like many years thereafter and in that the United Kingdom will continue to take an interest.

Whatever our differences have been over the years – and there have been some and there are some – I have no doubt that China has the same interest in that success. I had the opportunity at the Bangkok summit this week of spending some time talking to Li Peng about that matter and I was able to express to hint the importance for China’s own domestic interests of China observing in full the provisions of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law and he in turn confirmed to me China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s future autonomy, stability and prosperity.

There were issues upon which we did not agree, some of them were important issues. We did not agree on the Bill of Rights, we did not agree upon the future of LEGCO and these are not issues that we are putting in the back of the cupboard, not issues that we put to one side to forget, not issues – as the press reported – upon which we agreed to disagree. We did not agree to disagree – we just disagreed – and that is a quite different proposition and we – and by “we” I mean the United Kingdom Government – will continue to argue strongly for all the provisions of the Joint Declaration to be met in those areas of vital importance to, Hong Kong and of vital importance to the future of its people.

For our part, I believe that we have sought and we have managed the responsibilities bequeathed by history competently and decently and we will continue to do so not only until 30 June next year but also, so far as our powers allow and so far as our instincts will take us – and that is a very long way indeed – in the period beyond 30 June next year. I hope, we all hope, that China will manage those responsibilities in future with even greater success. That is what Britain, the world and above all the people of this territory would like to see.

Much of the history of the next century may be made here, made in China, made in this region, made in Hong Kong. The meeting in Thailand was a striking acknowledgement of that fact and that is why after last week’ s summit I believe that Hong Kong must be fully involved directly in follow-up on all economic and trade issues which are within Hong Kong’ s autonomy. Hong Kong is one of the main bridges between Europe and Asia and it must be properly represented whenever those matters are discussed between Europe and between Asia and so it is you, the people of Hong Kong, who will be helping to write the history of the next century. I have a feeling of confidence in the way in which you will do that I have no doubt you will do it with the same flair, the same energy and the same success that has made this tiny territory such an economic force in the world today. As you do that, it will be the determination of the United Kingdom to be with you in the future as we have been in the past.

Chris said that it is possible – not certain but possible – that this might be the last occasion on which a British prime minister visits the Governor of Hong Kong in his own residence during the period of British sovereignty over Hong Kong. Perhaps – not certainly but perhaps – but of this I am certain: however uncertain it may be whether this is the last visit under British sovereignty, it will not be the last visit of a British prime minister to Hong Kong, it will not be the last visit by British people interested emotionally, politically and economically in the interests of Hong Kong, it will by no means be the last investment in Hong Kong, by no means be the end of the relationship between Britain and Hong Kong. The relationship may change because of sovereignty changes but that it will continue and endure and economically strengthen I have not a shadow of a doubt.

If I could say one thing to the people of Hong Kong, one thing that I would hope they would take and capture in their hearts for the future, it would simply be this:

Look at yourselves and what you have achieved in the years that have gone past. I can find, wherever I look around the world, no comparative measure of success, no comparative improvement from a barren rock to the economic giant that exists today. That could not have been done without remarkable effort by remarkable people.

If you look back on what has been achieved in the past then I believe you will have a greater reason to be confident about what can be achieved in the future and as you face that future up until next year and beyond, you will not, I promise you, face it alone and I look forward to coming back not just myself, not just this British prime minister but successive British prime ministers and British ministers visiting Hong Kong on many occasions in the future. The best of Hong Kong lies ahead, of that I am certain and if we can persuade the people of Hong Kong that that is the case then the success of that future becomes even more certain.

Thank you for having me here this evening, I am delighted to have been here and I look forward to some of the things I have to say to you tomorrow lunchtime [applause].