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The Rise and Fall of Martin Lee and His Dream of a Democratic Hong Kong

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HONG KONG—On the rainy night in 1997 when the U.K. transferred Hong Kong to China, democracy leader Martin Lee stood on the balcony of the city’s legislature vowing to hold Beijing to its promises. China had agreed in the handover it would let the former colony govern itself under Western-style rule of law, including eventually electing its own leaders.

“The flame of democracy has been ignited and is burning in the hearts of our people,” he said in a speech to supporters and journalists shortly after China’s flag was newly raised over Hong Kong. “It will not be extinguished.”

Following large and at times violent democracy protests that rocked the city last year, Beijing is now rapidly dismantling the hallmarks of self-governance in Hong Kong. Though the city never achieved full democracy, even the limited elections Mr. Lee fought for as co-founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party are in doubt.

On Wednesday, Beijing forced the expulsion of four pro-democracy legislators who held seats filled through citywide elections. Officials said the legislators were expelled for disloyalty and suggested other expulsions could follow. The move triggered the resignations of most other members of the opposition and rendered the chamber a rubber-stamp for Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader.

The low point for Hong Kong was also one for Mr. Lee, whose long career has been intertwined with the city’s suddenly collapsing bid to preserve its Western-style freedoms. A London-trained barrister, he turned to activism after the U.K. began negotiating the handover to China in the 1980s. He helped write the city’s constitution, and after helping open a minority of legislative seats to direct voting, led Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp to victories that made him the face of the movement until he retired from the legislature in 2008.

He exuded hope bordering on faith that democracy would someday flourish not only in Hong Kong, but in all of China. He believed that the success of the global business center operating semiautonomously within the People’s Republic of China might someday serve as a beacon for the benefits of greater political and economic opening.

Martin Lee, fist raised at center left, supported the democracy cause from the balcony of Hong Kong’s legislature during the 1997 handover.

Martin Lee, fist raised at center left, supported the democracy cause from the balcony of Hong Kong’s legislature during the 1997 handover.

Photo: Mike Clarke/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The dream of democracy in Hong Kong, seeded by Mr. Lee and others and kept alive by successive generations, is crashing around them. Near midnight on June 30—almost exactly 23 years after the U.K. lowered its flag—Beijing imposed a sweeping security law to crush pro-democracy dissent. Under it, agents from mainland China have broad authority to enforce laws against sedition, secession and foreign collusion in the city—most with sentences of up to life in prison. The U.S. has declared that Hong Kong has lost any practical autonomy from mainland China.

Mr. Lee’s moderate brand of activism has been rendered unviable or illegal. His visits to Washington over the decades to build support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement are now criminalized. Protests are essentially banned and some slogans are considered illegal. Teenagers have been arrested for posting about independence on social media, and pro-democracy books removed from library shelves.

Once a symbol of the city’s democratic promise, Mr. Lee himself is becoming marginalized. Pro-Beijing elites always saw him as a troublemaker. Now, even some in the middle class who aren’t friends of Beijing either say the democracy movement he helped found missed chances to compromise that could have warded off a crackdown. By contrast, many of the student-aged protesters who battled police in the streets last year say his generation, working within the law, failed to confront China strongly enough to deliver democracy.

When Mr. Lee warned last year that the protesters’ increasing use of force would backfire, the online chat rooms that served as the central nervous system of the protest movement lighted up with criticism for the long-respected barrister and politician.

“When it comes to the Martin Lee generation, they were trying negotiation, and the so-called peaceful, rational and nonviolent way. I don’t want to say it’s useless, but we can see no sign that there was any improvement in all those years,” said Owan Li, a 28-year-old activist who was in the student government at Hong Kong Polytechnic University when it became the scene of fiery clashes with police last year.

“All I can say is, all these years I have been doing this for Hong Kong, not for myself,” Mr. Lee said of such criticism, in an interview on the day before the national security law went into effect. He was surrounded by a few mementos in an otherwise spare office: a letter from Bill Clinton, a bust of Winston Churchill, and a photo of himself, calling for democracy from the balcony of the city’s legislature.

Protest violence and police clashes escalated in Hong Kong last year.

Protest violence and police clashes escalated in Hong Kong last year.

Photo: dale de la rey/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

What sealed Hong Kong’s fate, he said, was China’s deepening authoritarianism under leader Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi has centralized power since taking office in 2012 and seeks a more assertive Chinese role on the world stage. The existence of an open society operating within China became incompatible with Mr. Xi’s vision of tighter control, Mr. Lee said, accusing the Chinese leader of using the unrest as a pretext to bring Hong Kong under his authority.

“To him the most important thing now is to ensure his party remains firmly in control, and he remains firmly in control,” said Mr. Lee.

For the first time in a career of activism carried out meticulously inside the law, Mr. Lee, 82 years old, is facing a criminal charge, after being arrested this year for participating in a huge unauthorized march in 2019. He is out on bail and fighting the charge.

Barrister Martin Lee marked the beginning of the legal year in Hong Kong in January 2019.

Barrister Martin Lee marked the beginning of the legal year in Hong Kong in January 2019.

Photo: tyrone siu/Reuters

The new security law, which criminalizes acts such as provoking hatred against the central government, has chilled free speech. After it was published, Mr. Lee—once nearly ubiquitous in the press criticizing attempts to erode Hong Kong’s freedoms—canceled a scheduled interview with The Wall Street Journal. He has since declined all media requests for comment on the security law, which isn’t retroactive, leaving his June interview with the Journal among his last on the subject.

With the lawful path of activism closing, he worried that the younger generation of democracy protesters who spent months battling police with Molotov cocktails could embrace underground militancy as a last resort, an idea he opposes.

“There are people pressed into a corner,” Mr. Lee said in June. “They don’t see any future for Hong Kong.”

THE RISING MOVEMENT

Britain’s agreement to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 meant putting millions of subjects under the authority of a Communist regime that many of these people had fled. Before he became known as the father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Mr. Lee was one of these people, a young boy in 1949 escaping China with his family for the then-sleepy British colony.

As China descended into economic chaos under Mao Zedong, free-market Hong Kong grew first into a bustling manufacturing hub and later a global financial center.

Mr. Lee rose with his city. By his early 40s he was chairman of Hong Kong’s bar association, a revered Queen’s Counsel and one of the city’s highest paid lawyers, moving seamlessly between the Chinese and English-speaking worlds of the thriving international city.

His life changed in the 1980s when he learned the U.K. was in talks to return its colony to China. He remade himself as a democracy crusader. A member of Hong Kong’s clubby elite, Mr. Lee unnerved many in his social sphere who saw his activism as futile, bad for business and doing little more than angering the city’s new masters in Beijing.

But for many in Hong Kong’s Chinese-speaking majority, he came to personify the idea that Hong Kongers could and should elect their own leaders—a powerful notion for a population that never truly experienced democracy under either the British or the Chinese.

Mr. Lee became an incessant critic of both China’s communist regime and Hong Kong’s British colonial government. Britain governed Hong Kong with laissez-faire liberalism when it came to commerce. But British Hong Kong wasn’t a democracy. British-appointed governors ruled as authoritarians, arriving in colonial regalia such as plumed helmets through the 1980s.

Mr. Lee demanded that British authorities introduce democracy to make it hard for China to roll it back after the handover. Beijing opposed the idea. When Britain backed down, Mr. Lee derided British negotiators as “China hands” sacrificing Hong Kong in hopes of better relations with Beijing.

“Martin was endlessly and properly critical of Britain’s role in the last years of our colonial responsibility in Hong Kong,” said Chris Patten, Britain’s last colonial governor, who accelerated democratic change from 1992 to 1997. “The only thing I think we could have done, looking back, was to start the development of democratic institutions earlier, so that people could get used to it, with all of its faults and its constraints.”

A handful of seats in the legislature were eventually opened to direct voting in the 1991 election. As a candidate, a year after co-founding the United Democrats of Hong Kong party, Mr. Lee led the pro-democracy camp to victory in 16 of the 18 seats open for citywide voting.

Candidate Martin Lee and his wife Amelia, flanking their son, cast their ballots in Hong Kong’s 1991 legislative election.

Candidate Martin Lee and his wife Amelia, flanking their son, cast their ballots in Hong Kong’s 1991 legislative election.

Photo: South China Morning Post via Getty Images

In 1995, after Mr. Patten exploited a loophole to expand voter rolls for other seats, Mr. Lee and the democrats expanded their bloc. Two years before the handover, the party led by Mr. Lee had more voter support than any other.

It didn’t last. Beijing dissolved the legislature after the 1997 handover. Elections since have been held under a system designed to ensure majorities for pro-Beijing candidates.

Mr. Lee’s father, a lieutenant general in the Kuomintang ousted by Mao, had warned him to be wary of the Communist Party when Beijing invited Mr. Lee to join the committee drafting Hong Kong’s constitution in the 1980s.

“The Communists cannot be trusted,” Mr. Lee recalled his father’s message. “If they want to make use of you, they will give you anything you want. Money, women, position, everything. But when they are finished making use of you, not only will they throw you down on the ground, but they will step all over you.”

Mr. Lee joined the drafting effort anyway. He had reason to be hopeful. In the 1980s, China was emerging from the darkness of the Cultural Revolution under a policy of “reform and opening up” led by Deng Xiaoping.

“The rest of the world, including me, thought so long as China can keep modernizing herself along the Hong Kong line, then China and Hong Kong would go down the same route,” he said. “Democracy for China, democracy for Hong Kong.”

“Martin had a kind of benign optimism where he didn’t seem to get too upset when things were difficult,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor and China legal authority who worked in Hong Kong. “He had the languages, the intellect, the humor, and the bearing in court and in public speech. That is why they all feared him so much.”

Hope for a more open China turned to horror on June 4, 1989 when the People’s Liberation Army ended the large pro-democracy protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with a massacre.

Martin Lee and other pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong in 1989.

Martin Lee and other pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong in 1989.

Photo: Gerhard Joren/LightRocket/Getty Images

In Hong Kong, Mr. Lee helped lead protest marches that until last year were some of the biggest the city had seen. He burned a draft copy of the miniconstitution and called on the U.K. to renegotiate some terms of the handover, to no avail. Beijing expelled him from the drafting committee and essentially banned him from the mainland.

THE FACE OF THE OPPOSITION

On the night of the handover, China skeptics feared Mr. Lee might be put in jail the moment Britain lowered its flag. “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 handover ceremony and sailing away on the royal yacht Britannia.

After the handover, Mr. Lee and pro-democracy candidates continued to win legislative seats open to popular vote, forging a noisy if symbolic opposition.

In 2003, Mr. Lee helped defeat a security law proposed in Hong Kong’s legislature, participating in mass protests and traveling to Washington to try to win U.S. support.

Passing a security law was required under Hong Kong’s miniconstitution. Mr. Lee and his colleagues didn’t propose an alternative; this year, Chinese officials cited the lack of such a law when China imposed its own, draconian version.

“Martin is a fantastic lawyer but not a great politician,” said Steve Tsang, author of “A Modern History of Hong Kong.” “He always had the moral strength of the argument on his side. But sometimes in politics it is not about winning the argument, but achieving what is plausible at the time.”

In the June interview, Mr. Lee said it was unfair for critics to put the onus of passing legislation on him, since his party was always restricted to the minority.

Younger generations of democracy leaders adopted Mr. Lee’s idealism, but with a progressively more confrontational approach.

When protesters took to the streets last year in opposition to a proposal to allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to the mainland for trial, the demonstrations quickly evolved into broader demands that included full democracy. For the young protesters, refusing to compromise with Beijing had become a guiding principle. Their mantra was “Five demands, not one less”—one of them universal suffrage.

“He set a pattern where it is difficult for the people who come after him to start compromising,” said Mr. Tsang, who also directs the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

Nathan Law, a 27-year-old democracy politician who traveled to Washington with Mr. Lee last year, describes a divide about engaging with the Hong Kong and mainland governments. “For us it is completely hopeless, but that generation will have more expectation,” he said. Mr. Law has since gone into exile to continue lobbying foreign capitals for support.

“Even though I may have some differences in the political field with Martin, whether on how we recognize street activism, the use of force, etc., I still have full respect for him,” said Joshua Wong, the 24-year-old politician who led mass protests in 2014 as a teenager.

The umbrella became a pro-democracy symbol in 2014. Martin Lee held one aloft in a 2015 march for universal suffrage.

The umbrella became a pro-democracy symbol in 2014. Martin Lee held one aloft in a 2015 march for universal suffrage.

Photo: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post/Getty Images

FRIENDS IN WASHINGTON

Last year, when Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed the extradition bill that eventually triggered the 2019 protests, Mr. Lee pulled out the playbook he had been using since the late 1980s: helping Hong Kong punch above its weight in its dealings with Beijing by cultivating allies in Washington.

Mr. Lee’s work in Washington has been bipartisan: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called him an old friend; in 2014, he met with then-Vice President Joe Biden, now the president-elect.

Martin Lee met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore at the White House in April 1997 ahead of Hong Kong’s handover to Beijing.

Martin Lee met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore at the White House in April 1997 ahead of Hong Kong’s handover to Beijing.

Photo: Ruth Fremson/Associated Press

The year of the handover, he met with then-President Clinton, imploring him to watch over the territory. Later, he helped Mr. Clinton persuade skeptical Democrats to support China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization. Mr. Lee believed membership in the WTO could teach China the sanctity of all its international contracts; China never learned this lesson because it got away with bending WTO rules, he now says.

“At the time I said, you must make sure China honors all the terms of these agreements,” Mr. Lee recalled. “Don’t just fold your arms and do nothing.”

When his delegation arrived in Washington in May 2019, a more hawkish view was taking hold, drawn from the conclusion that decades of economic engagement had failed to turn China into a responsible global partner.

“Our timing was very lucky,” Margaret Ng, a 72-year-old barrister and former lawmaker who traveled with Mr. Lee, said in a 2019 interview. “The West had freshly woken up from their China dream.”

Mr. Lee told a Congressional hearing that the extradition law would legalize kidnapping by China of critics like himself. He said a big statement from the U.S. would make a difference. “With your help, we may turn the tide,” he said.

Later in the hearing, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida cited Mr. Lee’s testimony when he promised to reintroduce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill designed to protect Hong Kong by threatening sanctions and economic penalties if China eroded its autonomy.

The bill had sat for years without a vote. Its revival marked a turning point.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of people began taking to the streets across Hong Kong, in teargas-fogged protests that escalated toward more violent confrontations with police as the months wore on. Some demonstrators waved U.S. flags to encourage passage of the sanctions law.

The international strategy Mr. Lee pioneered in the 1980s was amplified by delegations of younger democracy activists who made their own trips to Washington in 2019 to urge support.

U.S. support has become a rallying point for some Hong Kong protesters. One waved a flag during a July 1 protest this year.

U.S. support has become a rallying point for some Hong Kong protesters. One waved a flag during a July 1 protest this year.

Photo: Roy Liu/Bloomberg News

“How Martin let our voice be heard in the global community also encouraged more youngsters to do it, and enhanced international advocacy,” said Mr. Wong, the democracy activist. He made his first trip to Washington in 2015 at the invitation of Mr. Lee, and became a regular visitor thereafter.

In November, Congress unanimously passed the human-rights act, an effort “bolstered by the support of pro-democracy leaders like Martin Lee…as well as the many young Hong Kongers who came to Washington,” said Sen. Rubio.

BEIJING CRACKS DOWN

In Beijing, the sight of Hong Kong activists traveling to Washington to encourage the law’s passage prompted outrage.

“These national scum and Hong Kong sinners will always be nailed to the pillar of shame in our history,” China’s Hong Kong foreign ministry spokesman said in July 2019 after a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai put a spotlight on the Washington lobbying blitz.

Though Mr. Lee was a critic of protest violence, mainland news outlets labeled him part of a “new Gang of Four”—a reference to the Communist faction jailed at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution—that was allegedly colluding with the West to incite violent demonstrations.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What is the best course ahead for Martin Lee and Hong Kong’s democracy movement? Join the conversation below.

By the end of the year, the protests went into a lull amid the coronavirus outbreak. Hanging over the calm was a mystery: Had the protests and the threat of U.S. sanctions succeeded in pushing China back? Or, was Beijing gearing up for a crackdown?

The answer came on a Saturday in April, when Hong Kong police arrested Mr. Lee and 14 other activists.

Mr. Lee had just finished breakfast after a morning hike with his wife around Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak when a squad of police showed up at his door to arrest him on charges of participating in the unauthorized march.

“I had just gotten home and was wondering what would happen next. Then the knock on the door came and they showed me what was coming next,” he said.

Martin Lee arrived at court on May 18 after he and others were charged with taking part in unauthorized protests.

Martin Lee arrived at court on May 18 after he and others were charged with taking part in unauthorized protests.

Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

His arrest was a sign Beijing intended to crush the city’s decades old democracy movement at the roots, observers said. “When you arrest Martin Lee it’s like arresting the rule-of-law itself,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch.

In May, China’s National People’s Congress unveiled the outline of the new security law it planned for Hong Kong, and pointed to the overseas lobbying by Mr. Lee and others as justification.

The full law included broadly worded new crimes such as foreign collusion and sedition. On one point it was very specific: Going abroad to seek sanctions from foreign governments was explicitly outlawed.

Mr. Lee said that because China and the U.K. registered their 1984 accord to transfer Hong Kong as a United Nations treaty—aiming to build global confidence in the deal—it is the world’s business whether its terms are upheld.

“They are the ones who asked for the interference in the first place,” Mr. Lee said. “All I did was say, ‘C’mon, you made all these promises. You have to stick to it.’ ”

With the law in place, democracy advocates have been soul-searching about going into exile. Some left for the U.S. or Europe. At least one group tried to flee by speedboat to Taiwan, only to be captured on the high seas.

Lawmaker Martin Lee attended a candlelight vigil to demand full democracy, on Dec. 29, 2007.

Lawmaker Martin Lee attended a candlelight vigil to demand full democracy, on Dec. 29, 2007.

Photo: Vincent Yu/Associated Press

In his ninth decade and with a career so freighted with democratic symbolism that his departure would be cause for gloating in Beijing, Mr. Lee said his choice to stay was simple.

“If I have the choice of dying peacefully in bed outside Hong Kong, or dying in pain in a Chinese jail, the question for me is not how will I die, but will I go to heaven,” he said, before the law went into effect. “Dying without my convictions is what would really give me pain.”

Write to John Lyons at john.lyons@wsj.com

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