Martin Lee: “International community has the moral obligation to speak up for Hong Kong People”
Hong Kong police launched a mass-arrest against 15 prominent pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong on April 18, and 81-year-old barrister Martin Lee was one of them. In an interview on Sunday, he said Beijing has completely changed its position on Deng Xiao-Ping’s One Country, Two Systems’ promise and the international community has the moral responsibility to support Hong Kong people.
Question: Do you think there is a bigger political agenda behind the mass-arrest on April 18?
Martin Lee: Certainly there is a bigger agenda behind it. The Chinese government has changed its position on Deng Xiao-Ping’s One Country, Two Systems framework. That is the important point. When Deng promised Margaret Thatcher that if she would agree to return Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories back to China on July 1, 1997, then China would promise not to rule Hong Kong directly from Beijing, but to allow Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong.
The big promise is that for 50 years, neither the British or the Chinese government will be running Hong Kong. Instead, Hong Kong people will be running Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy. His promise was encapsulated in 12 Chinese characters which stand for “One Country Two Systems, Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy.”
Few years back in June, 2014, China’s State Council issued a white paper in seven different languages saying that the Central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong and Macau. This completely changed Deng Xiao-Ping’s 12 words, and everything that they are doing now is clear that they want to implement the new policies on Hong Kong. How can the British government allow them to do that?
The international community has a say in the matter because right after the Joint Declaration was announced to the world, a lot of governments came out to applaud it. I was surprised at the time because it was only an agreement between Great Britain and China. Later I found out that the Chinese government and the British government actually lobbied hard for international support, because they were afraid that too many Hong Kong people will be leaving Hong Kong as they had no confidence in Hong Kong’s future.
So they lobbied for open and public support from other countries and they gave them the support. So clearly these governments are under moral obligation to speak up for Hong Kong people, particularly our young people. They just want to hold China to the agreement, and it’s an international agreement. If you allow the Chinese government to easily breach an international agreement, how can you be sure that China won’t break another agreement with another country?
Question: You were part of the group that helped to draft the Basic Law during the 1980s. What kind of encroachment of the Basic Law’s power have you witnessed over the last few decades?
Lee: There are so many elements of the Basic Law that are important as they all hold the law together. Many years ago when Deng Xiao-Ping first came out with the idea of One Country Two Systems, I looked at it and said “it is possible to work but extremely difficult.” China is so big and Hong Kong is so small.
In the context of “One Country Two Systems,” we need two very important things. We need universal suffrage, so that the Chief Executive and all members of the Legislative Council can be chosen by Hong Kong people through universal suffrage. If they are elected by Hong Kong people and not handpicked by Beijing, they would know that if they are not perceived as always standing on the side of Hong Kong, they would lose in the next elections. So whenever there is any conflict of interest, they will find it absolutely necessary to defend Hong Kong against the central government.
The second one is that there must be no interference from Beijing, because they are the bigger player in this relationship. Although democracy was promised to us, 10 years from July 1, 1997, they kept on postponing it. This is the 23rd year and universal suffrage is nowhere in sight. The central government has completely forgotten about it. They don’t want to do it now.
The central government is now running Hong Kong through the liaison office. They decide all important things for us. For example, during the COVID19 pandemic, the problem becomes very clear. Everybody knows that the virus came from Wuhan, but when the Wuhan mayor finally enforced a lockdown on the city, Hong Kong still allowed everybody from China to come to Hong Kong.
We expected our Chief Executive to say since Wuhan was already closed, we should also close our borders to people arriving from Wuhan and other parts of China. She refused to do it, which forced Hong Kong’s medical staff to hold a strike for a few days. The government was forced to close some entries from China to Hong Kong, but they still allowed people from China to come in.
It was until much later that the Hong Kong government implemented a policy that required anyone coming into Hong Kong from China subject to a 14-day enforced quarantine. It took her a long time to do that and many people had come in from China during this time. That is the problem. She couldn’t decide for Hong Kong as Beijing decides things for Hong Kong. She wasn’t elected by Hong Kong people and she was chosen by Beijing.
This shows why the whole thing no longer works. Our government is hopeless and we are protecting ourselves. That’s why Hong Kong has been doing well in the pandemic so far.
Question: Earlier on Sunday, the Hong Kong government changed its position on the status of the liaison office. How should this particular move be interpreted, especially after the Hong Kong government made a series of controversial moves over the last few years?
Martin Lee: When Beijing claimed that they had complete jurisdiction over Hong Kong in 2014, there should have been huge complaints from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. However, the person in the position at the time agreed to Beijing’s claim. It is completely rewriting Deng Xiao-Ping’s promises
Article 22 of the Basic Law was really important, as it clearly indicated that no departments under the central government should interfere in Hong Kong affairs. That was there to cater to Hong Kong people’s worries. It was a very useful safeguard. The Liaison Office is one of the three departments under the central government that has formed an agreement with the Hong Kong government to set up an office in the city, but now the Hong Kong government came out to say the Liaison Office is not set up based on Article 22. So what is it?
Question: Last year’s anti-extradition bill movement was one of the biggest anti-government movements in Hong Kong’s history. We saw a lot of anger and frustration from the city’s younger generation. Some resort to more violent tactics as they saw more peaceful means wouldn’t work to change things. Do you empathize with Hong Kong’s younger generation? What do you think are the ways for them to move forward under the current circumstances?
Martin Lee: I can entirely understand their utter frustration. In fact, many of them complained about my generation’s support for the Joint Declaration and the One Country Two Systems model. I asked them to imagine what would have happened if my generation refused to accept the One Country, Two Systems model.
If the two governments agreed, what could my generation do? I said if I told the British government to give us independence, the British government would not fulfill such a promise as they were not dared to confront the Chinese government. So what do I do? Do I start a revolution against the British administration in Hong Kong? Even if I tried to do that, the PLA would come in.
The student leaders I talked to understand the situation facing my generation, but I can still understand their frustration. Beijing didn’t carry out its promises. If they had allowed us to develop democracy without any interference from Beijing, the students would be very happy. However, they chose not to honor the most basic condition of this agreement. There is no democracy and they also want to control Hong Kong’s administration. How can they blame Hong Kong’s younger generation?
If I were a teenager or in university, I might have joined them. I don’t blame them for complaining about us, but I always tell them that you can’t win with violence. We only have moral values and we have reason. We must take the moral high ground by using love and peace. We can’t win by using violence.
But I believe many young people didn’t want to use violence. Nobody can control the whole movement as it’s made up by many tiny groups. I’m convinced now that the majority of them don’t want violence. I certainly hope from now on, the protesters will stop using violence, because it doesn’t do our cause for democracy any good. It would only let the Chinese government have a reason to call us the terrorists. We will also lose the understanding and support from the international community.
Question: You are possibly going to face some trials and charges. How do you assess the situation? What do you see as your obligation moving forward?
Martin Lee: I’d rather be charged together with my colleagues rather than to be left alone. I have been doing this for so many years through peaceful means and by holding them to their own agreement. However, it didn’t work. So I can’t complain about these young people trying another way although I’m against using violence.
I can understand them, but if the Hong Kong government wants to charge me, I will face the consequences. I will never resort to violence. If the court found me guilty, I will go to prison. I know justice is on my side. There wouldn’t be any necessity of any movement of this kind if China had honored her agreement made with the British government.
If China is allowed to get away with breaking an international agreement in such a ridiculous manner, how can the international community expect China to honor other agreements? The international community needs to insist China to honor its obligation towards Hong Kong. If they want to deal with China, Hong Kong is the key to their relationship with Beijing.
This article first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.