A Reporter Looks Back: Hong Kong's Martin Lee in 2021

A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021-01-25
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A Reporter Looks Back: Hong Kong's Martin Lee in 2021 Former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Martin Lee (C) gestures as he leaves the Central District police station in Hong Kong on April 18, 2020, after being arrested and accused of organizing and taking part in an unlawful assembly in August last year.
Photo: RFA

Much has been written about the arrest of the Hong Kong politician and barrister Martin Lee in the spring of last year.

But what appears to be missing from most accounts is the question of what keeps Lee, now 82 years old, going.

I first met Lee in the mid-1980s in Hong Kong, where he worked out of a small, unpretentious office.

I met him again more than three decades ago in Washington, D.C., when he visited members of Congress and then stopped by Radio Free Asia.

Some of his colleagues had warned him that giving an interview to RFA might provoke the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong now that the United Kingdom had transferred power in the former British colony to China, albeit with a promise of autonomy for Hong Kong.

As a colleague and I walked with Lee from my office at RFA over to the Cantonese Language Service, where he gave an interview, he joked about possibly going to prison in Hong Kong because of the interview.

As I recall it, he said that if we wanted to send him food while he was in prison, we should remember that he didn't like red meat.

I think that what keeps Lee going is his religion, which is Roman Catholic, his love of Hong Kong, and his deep devotion to the British-style of law as the best way for a society to rule itself. I should add to the list his sense of humor, which I experienced first-hand during his visit to D.C.

Lee's bail condition doesn't stop him from talking with foreign media, but my attempt to reach him for this commentary via his website failed.

Lee's High Hopes for Hong Kong

In a commentary written for The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 15, 2020, the writer John Lyons described Lee's hopes for Hong Kong on the day in 1997 when the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty in Hong Kong over to China.

"On that rainy day in 1997 when the UK transferred Hong Kong to China, democracy leader Martin Lee stood on the balcony of the city's legislature vowing to hold China to its promises," Lyons wrote.

China had pledged that it would allow the former colony to 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,” Lee said in a speech to supporters and journalists shortly after China’s flag was raised over Hong Kong.

“It will not be extinguished,” he said.

The British writer Jan Morris described the optimism that prevailed at that moment in a book titled Hong Kong.

“One now saw something new in Hong Kong: a community racked by political argument,” she said.

“Scores of political groups came into being, from harmless debating societies to cells of activists eager for power.”

According to Morris, these groups included some who wanted immediate universal elections, those who appeared ready to defy China, and those who preferred to be well regarded by Beijing.

For the first time, “savagely perceptive” political cartoons appeared in the Hong Kong press and political debates began to take place in the Legislative Council.

Mark Simon, is the senior editor at Apple Daily, the most popular daily tabloid newspaper in Hong Kong.  Jimmy Lai, the paper’s founder, was like Martin Lee arrested during the Communist authorities’ crackdown on its critics.

Simon said that Martin Lee is "seen by many in Hong Kong's democratic movement as a bit out of touch in the last several years, and even he will tell you that sometimes he has missed the signals from young people, as have many of us." 

"He's not a leader anymore in the movement but a respected elder statesman who's seen as valuable on the legal front," said Simon, who considers Martin Lee a friend.

"That he gets up every morning and fights with the communists is a testimony to him," Simon said, "But the movement has continued on with others in the lead now."

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.

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