No change to HK policy after Blair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am

British minister reiterates commitment to universal suffrage

Britain's commitment to universal suffrage in Hong Kong would not change under Tony Blair's successor as prime minister, a leading cabinet minister said yesterday.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, secretary of state for constitutional affairs and Lord Chancellor, said when Hong Kong could reach its ultimate goal of full democracy was a matter for the public to decide and that it could not happen overnight.

'Any change in leadership of the Labour Party and prime minister will not lead to any change in foreign policy in relation to Hong Kong and China,' he said during a three-day visit to Hong Kong.

The announcement by Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday that he would step down within a year has raised questions about his successor's position on Sino-British relations and Hong Kong's role in the equation.

Mr Blair has been prime minister since the handover in 1997.

Lord Falconer, a close ally of Mr Blair, would not speculate on the China policy of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who is tipped to be Mr Blair's successor.

He reiterated Britain's commitments to Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and said his visit and the tight links between the two places demonstrated excellent relations.

During a visit to Government House on Thursday, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen showed Lord Falconer his prized pet koi carp after a meeting to discuss political and legal issues.

Responding to criticism by some Hong Kong lawmakers and British opposition MPs that the Joint Declaration had no teeth, and to accusations that pushing for universal suffrage in Hong Kong was low on Britain's agenda, Lord Falconer said the democratisation process was not an issue 'to be dealt with overnight'.

'We remain committed to our relationship with Hong Kong but we don't run Hong Kong,' he said.

'The British government's position is that we want to see universal suffrage introduced, but we recognise that timing, and how that is done, is a matter for the administration of Hong Kong, to be discussed in the context of its place within China as a whole.'

Lord Falconer, who also had two meetings with Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, said the two discussed bringing English judges to Hong Kong to train and share their experience of civil justice reform.

He said whether solicitors were granted higher rights of audience - the right to argue cases in the High Court and above - was a matter for Hong Kong. But he said the change had gone down well in England.

In June the Hong Kong judiciary issued a consultation paper on whether to grant this right to solicitors and under what conditions. The Law Society has long pressed for the right but many barristers have warned it could jeopardise the strength and independence of the Bar. Lord Falconer said the two were not mutually exclusive.