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Major Promises Hong Kong; You’ll Never Walk Alone

March 4, 1996 GMT

HONG KONG (AP) _ Prime Minister John Major, seeking to dispel the notion that Britain’s role in Hong Kong is over, gave an unequivocal pledge today to hold China to its commitments after it recovers the colony next year.

``Hong Kong will never have to walk alone,″ he promised. If China breached the 1984 treaty it signed with Britain on the handover of Hong Kong, ``we would mobilize the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue available to us,″ he said in a speech to Hong Kong business leaders.

Major, making possibly the last visit by a British prime minister to the 155-year-old colony before it becomes a part of China, also delivered long-awaited concessions on visas and passports.

Hong Kong people would continue to have visa-free access to Britain after the July 1, 1997, handover, and non-Chinese left stateless would be guaranteed asylum in Britain if they were pressured to leave Hong Kong, he said.

Major gave a tart response to a questioner asking ``how on earth can you sleep comfortably at night″ handing 6 million people over to a Chinese government many of them detest.

He replied that Britain had no choice because its 99-year lease on the territory expires on June 30, 1997. ``I don’t like it any more than you like it. But I have to obey the law,″ he said.

Major extolled Hong Kong’s legal system, democracy and civil rights, and said Britain would continue to resist China’s plans to disband the colony’s elected legislature and repeal parts of its civil liberties code.

``We are not going to leave it there,″ he said. ``We do not and we will not simply lie down and accept what we’re told.″

But he said it was also up to Hong Kong people to stand up for their rights under Chinese rule. He devoted special attention to business people, many of whom are well-connected to China and say disputes over democracy are bad for business.

``Your interests will be directly affected if things go wrong,″ he said. ``If you don’t appear to care about the survival of Hong Kong’s system, its rule of law, clean government and a free society, then others may draw the conclusion that they don’t really matter.″

Major did not spell out what action Britain would take if China broke its commitments. But he noted that the handover was grounded in a Chinese-British treaty, and in mentioning ``legal avenues,″ he could be hinting at recourse to the World Court or the United Nations.

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Major’s concessions on passports, which drew the only applause during the speech, are meant to assure Hong Kong people of unhindered access to Britain, and to give hope to the several thousand non-Chinese, mostly of Indian descent, who are not automatically entitled to Chinese citizenship.

``We are prepared to guarantee, repeat to guarantee, admission and settlement if at any time after July 1, 1997, they were to come under pressure to leave Hong Kong,″ he said.

``This is the happiest day of my life,″ said Lakhi Uttamchandani, an Indian who has lived in Hong Kong for 32 years. ``He put my mind at ease.″