Major Vows to Stand by Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- British Prime Minister John Major on Monday offered Hong Kong people visa-free travel to Britain after China takes over in 1997, but faced an immediate protest from a member of his ruling party back home.

Major also warned China that Britain would tolerate no interference in Hong Kong's laws, nor any dilution of its Bill of Rights. He said London would react to any breach by Beijing of the 1984 Sino-British pact governing the hand over.

"If there were any suggestion of a breach in the [1984] Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us," he told Hong Kong's business community.

While the announcement was welcomed by the businessmen, some lawmakers and ordinary residents of the British colony said Major had not done enough to reassure them.

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

Major said, later in the day, "Britain's commitment to Hong Kong and its future is not dribbling away in the 400-and-something days that remain. ... Hong Kong will never have to walk alone."

he promised.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the minority Liberal Democrats, said the announcement was a triumph for Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten over Home Secretary Michael Howard, Britain's interior minister, who he said had opposed visa-free access.

Immigration is an explosive issue in Britain, where Major lags badly in the polls and faces an election within 14 months.

Hong Kong had argued that Britain had to offer Hong Kong people visa-free travel under their future Special Administrative Region of China passports if it wanted to depart with dignity on June 30, 1997, after 150 years of colonial rule.

British officials say half the colony's 6.3 million residents are in any case entitled to a restricted British passport, which allows them free entry but no right of abode.

In a speech to Hong Kong's business community that went further than expected, Major stressed British commitment to Hong Kong's future up to and beyond the hand over next year.

Major said the colony's elected Legislative Council (Legco), which is halfway through its term but which China wants to scrap in 1997, must be permitted to serve its full four years.

"I don't think we would or could understand if Legco's life were cut in half in 1997 and neither would I believe that the world at large would understand," he said before departing for Seoul on the last leg of his Asian tour.