Key Commons body considering HK trip

THE powerful Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee is considering a visit to Hongkong later this year to monitor relations with China - its first trip to the territory since its 1989 emergency report following the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Chairman Mr David Howell, who only returned from the former Yugoslavia at the end of last week, refused to be drawn yesterday on the continuing row surrounding Governor Mr Chris Patten's blueprint but stressed that the committee ''keeps a constant interest in Hongkong''.

''We are concerned all the time for the welfare of the territory,'' he said. ''We are considering whether to visit Hongkong during 1993 but no final decision has been taken.'' The all-party committee is following up with the Foreign Office what progress it has made on recommendations in the 1989 report.

The report, rushed through in the wake of the crackdown, recommended strict limits on the number of Hongkong people to be granted full UK passports but urged the British Government to try to resolve the apparent impending statelessness of Hongkong's Indian population.

Mr Howell stressed he was especially concerned to see what progress was being made regarding Indians, who were in a ''particularly difficult position''.

The Legislative Council roundly condemned aspects of the report at the time in 1989, focusing on the committee's rejection of the principle of restoring the right of abode to the estimated 3.25 million Hongkong people who are registered as British.


Co-operative Resources Centre (CRC) convenor Mr Allen Lee Peng-fei then described a ''partial solution'' as the worst, echoing a common fear that to grant the right of abode in Britain to a privileged few would divide Hongkong.

The committee is the constant target of lobbying by Hongkong politicians of all political colours visiting Britain and recently hosted meetings with the CRC and independents including Miss Emily Lau Wai-hing.

It has been reluctant to be drawn into the row over Mr Patten's democracy proposals so far out of fear of causing more problems. It seems likely it will choose to visit Hongkong much later in the year once the proposals have been through the Legislative Council.

If an inquiry this year follows the normal pattern, it would involve Foreign Office officials, ministers and others appearing before the committee to give their views and answer questions about the state of relations with China.


Mr Howell has also been involved in behind the scenes lobbying with US President Mr Bill Clinton's administration to see that the US ambassador to Britain, Mr Ray Seitz, keeps his post, which is of significance to Hongkong.

Unusually for the London posting, Mr Seitz, appointed by former president Mr George Bush, is a career diplomat - most US ambassadors to Britain are leading business figures and political friends of the president.


But there are many in Britain anxious to keep Mr Seitz on for a variety of reasons, including his understanding of the British position on Hongkong and the way he has always reflected to Washington Whitehall's concerns about Most Favoured Nation status for China.

Mr Seitz is also understood to be sympathetic to the British Government's case on Northern Ireland, unlike several figures in the US administration.

There is growing concern in Whitehall about the cracks starting to appear in the so-called ''special relationship'' between Britain and the US under the Clinton administration.


These are reflected in Mr Clinton's statements calling for the enlargement of the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council to include Japan and Germany. This is being read as questioning Britain's membership of the permanent group of the council.

There is also a feeling that Mr Clinton may want to establish better links with other European Community countries such as Germany to the detriment of links between Washington and London.

Many feel this could only have a negative effect on British-US understanding on Hongkong and China.


Admirers of the Yale-educated Mr Seitz, the first professional diplomat to become American ambassador to Britain, have undertaken a remarkable lobbying exercise on his behalf.

But the fear is that Mr Clinton owes many political favours among the thousands of Democrats who helped him to achieve his victory.

By tradition, the top job at Grosvenor Square is one of the jewels in the crown of patronage options available to a new president and, in normal circumstances, Mr Seitz could expect to make way for a Democrat appointee.

There has been a flood of praise for Mr Seitz in newspaper editorials and among MPs and politicians, including Mr Howell who said: ''He is certainly held in very high regard and it is quite reasonable to let that be known.''