Hong Kong democracy 'grandfather' says Britain was better than China

Activist and legislator Martin Lee – hit by tear gas while protesting this week – speaks of his life as a leading pro-democracy intellectual who has long fought for greater freedom in his native city. He says Britain should speak up now.

Vincent Yu/AP
Veteran activist Martin Lee, center, wearing goggles and a mask waves to reporters as he appears outside the government headquarters to join a protest in Hong Kong, Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014.

Sporting a colorful “Occupy Central” T-shirt with a yellow ribbon pinned to it, Martin Lee looks like any other of the tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who have paralyzed central Hong Kong for the last five days demanding that the Chinese government listen to them.

A bit older, perhaps. But there is little about the lithe and youthful Mr. Lee to suggest that he is the grandfather of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Now 76 years old, Lee was agitating for more democracy here 30 years ago, long before most of today’s protesters were born.

And in those days he was fighting the British, not the Chinese. At the time, Lee was not especially impressed by London’s half-hearted moves towards democracy before Britain handed its colony back to China in 1997. But distance or time seems to have lent enchantment to the view.

“The British did actually deliver partial democracy,” he says now. “The Chinese have delayed and delayed. And what they are offering now is pretend democracy. Hong Kong people will not accept it.”

The Chinese government says that it is keeping an earlier promise to make a vote for Hong Kong’s top official more democratic by introducing universal suffrage in the next chief executive elections in 2017.

Yet under Beijing’s plan, as Hong Kong critics like Lee point out, only candidates approved by the ruling Communist Party will be allowed on the ballot.

Since Saturday when protests here began to swell, Lee has been on the front lines with student demonstrators, demanding that Beijing withdraw its proposal and come up with a truly competitive system that would not bar his “pan-democrat” colleagues from the outset.

He was tear gassed for his pains, he says – a novel experience for a senior barrister and long-time legislator whose wood paneled chambers are lined with shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of leather-bound tomes, law reports from the English courts. Lee studied law in London.

But Lee has always been equally at home on the street at the head of a demonstration or in the High Court arguing a case. And in both milieus he has made himself seriously unpopular with Beijing. He has not been allowed into mainland China, apart from a brief official visit to neighboring Guangdong province as a Hong Kong lawmaker, since he led protests here against the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

Today, his sense of history is sharpened by the role he himself played Hong Kong's history. Leaning against the law books is a photograph taken on the day of Hong Kong's handover to Beijing from Britain. Lee is addressing a crowd from the balcony of the Legislative Council building from which the new Chinese authorities had just evicted all the sitting members, replacing them with more accommodating  politicians. “'We will be back' -- that was the message I delivered,” he recalls. “And we were.”

Today Lee derives less pleasure riffling through newspaper cuttings from that historic handover. They remind him that British officials said at the time they might take China to the United Nations if Beijing reneged on its promises of autonomy and democracy for Hong Kong.

In fact, since Aug. 31 when Beijing made it clear that an international standard of free and fair elections were not going to happen,  London has not issued a squeak of protest about China’s intentions, much to Lee’s disappointment.

After more than 30 years of political and legal struggle to win real democratic rights for Hong Kongers, does he feel close to victory now, as swelling crowds of demonstrators pose the Chinese government the bluntest challenge it has faced since the Tiananmen protests in 1989?

Lee, a devout Christian, is not getting his hopes up too high. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s up to the Almighty. So long as there is democracy in Hong Kong, and in China too, I will be a very happy man. But I may be a very happy man in heaven, not down here.” 

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