Activists account of Martin Lee’s fight for Hong Kong democracy

Published (HKT): 2021.04.18 22:19

“Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested,” Prince Charles wrote in his diary, after attending the ceremony of the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Lee, often dubbed Hong Kong’s “father of democracy,” received on Friday a suspended sentence for his participation in a peaceful assembly on Aug. 18, 2019.

The conviction of the 82-year-old shows that even the most moderate pro-democracy politicians will not be spared under Beijing’s tightening grip.

Fellow member of the Democratic Party, Sin Chung-kai, met Lee in 1987, where the latter vouched for him during his election campaign for the district council. Sin described him as a British gentleman, sincere and upright with a sense of humor. When they organized hikes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lee insisted on following the social distancing rules and hiking in no more than four. “He wouldn’t take the chance. That’s the kind of person he is, strictly abiding by the law,” Sin said.

Sin recalled Lee’s speech in 2008 when he retired from the legislature. “The democratic dream would not be a nightmare. Though not a sweet dream, I have confidence that democracy will descend on our country and Hong Kong in the near future,” Lee had said.

Lee’s vision seemed to be further than ever, as the national security law and the overhaul of the electoral system stamped out the remaining vestige of democracy in Hong Kong. “We may dream on. But I don’t think he will see this dream realized in his lifetime,” said Sin. His conviction “symbolized the failure of ‘one country, two systems’”, Sin added.

Despite all the changes, Lee has remained unwavering in his belief even when it could cost him his freedom at his old age. “I feel proud that I have an opportunity to walk with the young people of Hong Kong in the road of democracy,” Lee said, when he was first arrested in April last year.

Perhaps Lee also realized a storm was descending on Hong Kong and he was willing to suffer alongside the younger generations, Sin said. “He has done his best. I don’t think he should feel any regret.”

Over 60 years younger than Lee, Billy Fung, former head of the student union at the University of Hong Kong, remembered the democrat as a kind and caring senior. Lee was his legal representative when he was sued for criminal intimidation over his role in the siege of the university governing council meeting in 2016. “I was looking at his silhouette, and I could feel how he took my case to heart,” Fung recalled.

He was surprised and deeply moved by the veteran barrister’s willingness to take up his case. “I did not come from a wealthy family. So being represented by a top barrister in the bar felt surreal,” said Fung. “Without him and other lawyers, my path would have been a lot more difficult.”

Fung also remembered Lee taking breaks for naps during court trials. “It is difficult to imagine an octogenarian needing to bear this kind of punishment,” said Fung, fearing for Lee’s health should he be imprisoned.

In the eyes of activist Raphael Wong, Lee is an open-minded person with strong principles, which drives an ideological wedge between him and the younger generations. Lee has been vehemently against the independence of Hong Kong as well as foreign sanctions. He often cites the words of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instead, holding the regime accountable for its words and promises.

Though accused by the regime of instigating unrest, he served the opposite. Lee stood for peace and valued the opinions of young people, often doing what he could to give young people the opportunities. More often than once, Lee has asked him and fellow activist Joshua Wong what they could do to take Hong Kong’s democratic movement further, Wong recalled.

When Lee represented Wong in a case of contempt of court, he spent an hour debating with former Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma on a certain legal principle, prompting the latter to throw the case file in a fit. The incident was yet another example of Lee’s belief in the law and his determination for human rights and rule of law, Wong continued. “He is very worthy of our respect.”

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