`Great leap forward' in relations with China, says Andrews

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Andrews, yesterday travelled from Beijing to Hong Kong for the first meeting between an …

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Andrews, yesterday travelled from Beijing to Hong Kong for the first meeting between an Irish minister and the leader of Hong Kong since the territory became a Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China on July 1st last year.

In a 40-minute conversation at Government House, the Hong Kong chief executive, Mr Tung Chee-hwa, assured him that south-east Asia would recover from its current financial and economic crisis. "Asia is not finished," said Mr Tung. He predicted, however, that it might be four to six years before the region regained the position it had before the crisis began in mid-1997, Mr Andrews said.

Mr Andrews returns to Ireland today after a four-day visit to China which marked the "normalisation" of relations between the two countries, strained last year over human rights.

The outcome of the China visit was a "great leap forward" in ties between Dublin and Beijing, Mr Andrews told a reception for the Irish community in Hong Kong's American Club last night. He said relations between Ireland and China were now "very warm indeed".

Mr Andrews was the first European minister to visit Beijing following the EU decision to stop censuring Beijing's human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

He said he was struck by the commitment of the Chinese leadership to the concept of one-country-two-systems under which Hong Kong is guaranteed to keep its capitalist ways for 50 years from the time of the handover. Mr Tung, he said, praised the contribution Irish people had made to the territory over the years.

Members of the Irish community among the 150 people at the reception said that they, like everyone else in Hong Kong, had been affected in some way by the economic crisis in south-east Asia, and some in the badly-hit financial sector have had to leave.

The former colony has also been hit by the bird flu and a drastic fall in tourism. Mr Tung assured Mr Andrews, however, that Hong Kong's fundamentals were sound.

Hong Kong is Ireland's 21stlargest trading partner, and exports to Hong Kong have been growing fast. Exports for January to November 1997 totalled £177 million, 42 per cent up on the previous year.

Mr Andrews said he also discussed human rights with Mr Tung, referring to a report published yesterday from a Hong Kong human rights coalition which accused the administration of curtailing civil liberties.

Mr Tung told Mr Andrews that the SAR was obliged, as a signatory of a UN convention on social and political rights, to make a report every year to the UN Human Rights Commission, and this would be done by Beijing, which was responsible for Hong Kong's foreign relations.

He defended the SAR's record and emphasised that the religious communities in the territory continued to enjoy complete freedoms. This view was echoed by three US church leaders who also met Mr Tung yesterday at the end of a ground-breaking two-week tour of communist-ruled China, including a trip to Tibet. The Human Rights Coalition of 11 non-governmental organisations alleged in a report it will send to the UN that there had been a regression of democracy and human rights since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule. The group cited the scrapping of laws protecting labour rights, and amendments of civil liberties and immigration laws. It criticised new election laws governing polls in May, saying they were weighted in favour of the elite business and professional sectors.