Monday, May 25, 2020

'I won’t allow this to be the end of Hong Kong': campaigner on his long fight for democracy

Martin Lee founded Hong Kong’s Democractic party in 1994. 

Martin Lee’s father brought his family from China to the city for safe haven. Despite new security laws planned by Beijing, he won’t give up on his ambition

when Martin Lee arrived in Hong Kong from China with his parents in 1949, he was just 11. Lee’s father, Li Yin-wo, was a general in the Nationalist party who fought against the Japanese during the second world war.

After his party was defeated by the Communist party in the civil war, instead of fleeing to Taiwan like most of his army colleagues, he brought his family to Hong Kong, where he became a schoolteacher.

Years later, Lee’s father told him he had chosen to come to the British colony because it was a safe haven for his children and he wanted to avoid being involved with either party.

He did not want to continue serving the corrupt Nationalist government, nor stay in China to serve the Communist government, which he did not trust. Zhou Enlai, the first premier of Communist China, who knew Li when both were students in France, repeatedly invited him back to China, but Li declined.

Lee’s father, Li Yin-wo, was a general in the Nationalist party who fought against the Japanese during the second world war. 

Now, Lee fears that the unique status of the city where his father found stability and peace is under threat as never before.

On Friday, China revealed its plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong to prevent and punish acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism activities” that threaten national security. The plan, which bypasses the city’s legislature, would also allow Chinese national security organs to set up in the city.

The move led to widespread unease in Hong Kong. “To people of my father’s generation, this is a huge irony, because they thought this would be a safe haven for their families,” said Lee, now 81.

Li Yin-wo (left), Martin Lee and Martin Lee’s son, Joseph.

After the change of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong was ruled by China under the “one country two systems” arrangement which guaranteed its freedoms for another 50 years.

But China has tightened its control over the city and frustrations exploded into last year’s mass anti-government movement, which was triggered by a proposed extradition law which could see individuals sent to China for trial.

Lee has long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. In the early 1980s, as chairman of the Hong Kong Bar association, he was invited by China to become one of 23 Hong Kongers on the Basic Law Drafting Committee. But, after criticising Beijing for crushing the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989, he was banished from the body.

His father’s advice for him was: “Don’t trust the Communist party. When they need you, they’d give you everything but when they’re done they’d drop you, kick you and stamp on you.”

Lee went on to found the Democratic party in 1994 and has since been seen as a “traitor” to China for his lobbying for western support for the democratisation of Hong Kong. Last month, he was one of 15 prominent figures arrested for illegal assembly for demonstrating in last year’s anti-government protests.

Martin Lee greeting supporters during campaigning in 1995. 

The new national security law announced on Friday would make “trouble-makers” like Lee still more vulnerable.

“They have completely breached the [Sino-British joint declaration] agreement,” Lee said. “There should be only one body to legislate laws in Hong Kong and that’s the legislative council.”

Lee said the most chilling aspect of China’s move was that “they have set a precedent for Beijing to legislate on Hong Kong’s behalf. We’re the meat on the chopping board.”

Beijing has wanted Hong Kong to legislate a national security law since 2003, but it was shelved after mass protests that year. As the current anti-government movement approaches its first anniversary, and with China having run out of patience with Hong Kong’s increasingly violent unrest, it decided to apply its national security laws through the Basic Law’s Annex III, which allows national laws to be applied to the city.

But Lee, a barrister who qualified in Lincoln’s Inn and became QC in 1979, said Chinese laws that can be applied through this mechanism should only be those relating to defence and foreign affairs and “matters outside the limits of Hong Kong’s autonomy”. The national security laws did not fall into those categories, he said.

Martin Lee campaigns for his Democratic party in the central district of Hong Kong in 2004. 

What China is doing goes “completely against” the plan of the late Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader of China from 1978 to 1992, who wanted to keep Hong Kong’s capitalism and core values alive while allowing a convergence period of 50 years to allow China to catch up in modernisation, he said.

“Deng Xiaoping wanted one country, two systems because he wanted China to change,” he said. “Now China doesn’t even want to follow the rules of its own book … they are unwilling to undercut their power and they fear you’re a threat. But if you continue to suppress people like this, things will explode.”

In his long and eventful life, there have been two occasions on which Lee has considered leaving Hong Kong: the 1967 riots when the pro-communist camp attempted to unseat colonial rule; and in the early 1980s during a confidence crisis over the 1997 change of sovereignty.

But in the end he decided to stay. “How can you leave when Hong Kong needs you most?” he said to himself. “I must ensure Hong Kong has the rule of law, then we can have hopes for freedoms.”

Asked if he thought this latest move by Beijing was the end of the Hong Kong that the world has known, Lee said: “I won’t allow this to be the end of Hong Kong. Hong Kong may be a tragedy but I won’t give up … even if you jail me, kill me, I will still point out it’s their fault. Democracy will come to China one day.”

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