Martin Lee is known as Hong Kong's 'father of democracy'Bethan McGinley/Catherine Lally

Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s internationally-recognised politician and barrister, is calm and unassuming as he smiles and shakes my hand. Lee had just spoken at a Cambridge Union open period panel, along with other pro-democracy campaigners from Hong Kong – including Benny Tai, Evan Fowler and Nathan Law. No doubt tired after a day of travelling, Lee remains attentive and waves away my apologies for asking yet more questions so late in the evening. He tells me, “you are only tired if you say you’re tired; I say I am awake so I am.” It is exactly this strength of mind which has characterised Lee’s long campaign for democracy.

Having been directly involved in the drafting of the mini-constitution of the post-1997 Hong Kong in 1985, and in the discussions surrounding the sovereignty of Hong Kong after 1997, Lee’s struggle for Hong Kong’s autonomy has spanned over three decades. He is the founding chairman of the United Democrats of Hong Kong, the first major political party in Hong Kong and later the Democratic Party, the current pro-democracy party. It is no wonder then, that he is known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy”, a title which he corrects to “grandfather” with a wry smile.

"One country, two systems is fast becoming one country, one system"

The 2014 Umbrella pro-democracy sit-in street protests in Hong Kong captured the world’s attention. Lee was 76 at the time, and while on the frontlines with student activists, police fired tear gas on the crowd. Four years on, he claims in mock-seriousness that “tear gas keeps the mind sharp”. Such light-hearted humour puts those around him immediately at ease, with the exception, I would imagine, of the Beijing government whom he calmly condemns. While China had pledged an election of Hong Kong’s chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, this has failed to materialise. Twenty-one years post-handover, Lee states that “one country, two systems is fast becoming one country, one system”.

It is this desire, for promises to be fulfilled and democracy to be achieved in Hong Kong, that has driven Lee’s long career. From the outset, he states that in the writing of the constitution he “wanted to give as much power to the legislator over the government”, in order to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy. And whilst Lee acknowledges that the “one country two systems” policy is “very difficult to work”, he says that the onus lies with Beijing. It is just like a seesaw, he explains: “the larger system must move towards the centre”, while “the mainland is much bigger, heavier – but it is still using its might”.

Indeed, the Joint Declaration agreed by the UK and the People’s Republic of China decided that the political and legal system of the PRC would not be practised in Hong Kong, and that Hong Kong's way of life would remain unchanged until 2047. Lee puts it candidly: “since one country, two systems is China’s own basic policy put into writing ... and enshrined in our constitution of basic law; that is still the only way forward.” Yet in 2014, Ni Jian, China’s deputy ambassador to Britain, was said to have told Richard Ottoway, the chairman of British House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, that to Chinese officials the Joint Declaration “is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997.” Lee echoes this, as he lists the fruits of democracy he believes Hong Kong enjoyed under British rule, which are being gradually eroded by the government in Beijing. “We don’t find a democratic tree [in Beijing]. In Hong Kong we must grow our own. We are unable to look to Beijing for fruits of democracy.”

Beijing is "emboldened by the silence of the British government and the rest of the world"

Such “fruits of democracy” include the free press, which is under threat from China’s authoritarian government. It is on this topic, more than any other, that Lee does not hold back. “We don’t have an independent press anymore” he says sadly. “There are so many of them which are entirely pro-Beijing”, he adds. According to Lee, since the Alibaba Group – China’s largest online commerce company – bought the South China Morning Post, there is now no English-language independent paper in Hong Kong. “The South China Morning Post,” he says with a shake of his head, “used to be independent and used to be very good… now Alibaba has bought it of course it loses its independence”

For Lee, there is no question that the government in Beijing is leaning heavily on the press to construct a pro-China propaganda narrative. In this, alongside other infringements on Hong Kong’s autonomy, he speaks unapologetically, never breaking eye contact as he describes how Beijing is “emboldened by the silence of the British government and the rest of the world”.

Whilst Lee primarily blames the British government’s silence on a desire to maintain Chinese trade relations, he also notes that, given the “the lack of accurate reporting in English”, as British citizens, “you may not even know what’s happening in Hong Kong”. It is this which he voices with a degree of frustration, communicating just how important a free press is to sparking activism; “if you feel strongly about Hong Kong,” he tells me “you might go to see your local MP, write letters, protest… thereby [putting] some pressure on the British government”.


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However, Lee is not disheartened. He speaks strongly and with passion, and in addressing the panel, he answered with a resounding “yes” that he did truly believe that Hong Kong would achieve democracy in the next fifty years.

For Lee, the goal is a democratic Hong Kong, “nothing more, nothing less,” as was promised, and the free press is both needed to fuel the struggle, but also to act as a cornerstone of a truly democratic society. For Lee, press freedom is priceless and the opportunity afforded to students in Cambridge to learn, debate and report freely is one to be cherished and upheld. In his final words he tells me, “freedom of the press … it is up to you, if you are brave enough to report it”.

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