Martin Lee

Nancy Yoshihara is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Martin C.M. Lee during his recent visit to Los Angeles

Martin C.M. Lee recalls wistfully how excited he was 13 years ago when he rushed to get a copy of the agreement returning Hong Kong to China in 1997. The chairman of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest and most popular party, sat at a little desk in a windowless copying room reading the joint declaration agreement for a one-China, two-systems policy. Lee later helped draft the 1990 Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong is to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. The United States and other countries endorsed the pact. The future looked bright.

Today, Lee is worried. China has breached the agreement in many ways. It has appointed a provisional legislature for Hong Kong. Beijing plans to restrict the rights of protest and assembly when it resumes sovereignty over the British colony in two months. Yet, China’s actions have not raised a peep from the international community, much to Lee’s dismay.

Lee has been traveling to Europe, Australia and the United States to express his concerns to officials, policymakers and business leaders. He met in April with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and later spoke with President Bill Clinton.

In an interview in Los Angeles before his recent visit to Washington, Lee said the ill-defined U.S. policy of constructive engagement sends confusing messages to China’s leaders. He said the administration is “looking at China starry-eyed. You know, this huge China trade pie. I would only say this when they formulate a policy on China and when they decide on the bottom line, no matter how low, stick to it.” He believes the failure of the United States and other countries to speak out for Hong Kong’s freedoms tacitly condones China’s breaches of the joint declaration.


Despite his criticisms of Beijing, Lee affectionately refers to China as “my country.” When asked about the reference, he replied, “But of course it ‘tis.” Lee is an elected member of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife, Amelia. Their 15-year-old son attends school in Britain.


Question: Is the U.S. policy of constructive engagement with China at odds with Hong Kong’s interests?

Answer: It looks like it, but it shouldn’t be. Of course, it would be wrong for any government in the world to ignore the huge China market--1.2 billion people. But China trade and Hong Kong’s human rights are not mutually exclusive. They are actually complementary. This is what I have been saying on all my trips overseas. . . . Because a lot of overseas business people, big-business people, have been exerting pressure on their governments not to raise [the matter of] Hong Kong when they have meetings with Chinese leaders.


They’ve taken the view, I believe wrongly, that if they were to mention Hong Kong, it would be just like mentioning Tibet [and] Taiwan, and it would prejudice their chances of getting more China trade. Hong Kong is unlike Tibet, Taiwan or China’s human rights.

Not that I am saying that human rights in these places are unimportant because, to me, human rights of any person are important. But Hong Kong is distinguishable because . . . of the joint declaration. Surely, your government can only support the implementation of an international agreement and not the violation of it. In the joint declaration, we were promised an elected legislature. Now we’ve already been given an appointed one. What has your government done? Nothing.

But if Clinton were to mention Hong Kong freedoms and the rule of law to [Chinese President]Jiang Zemin when they meet [this fall], what can Jiang say? He will try to say, “Look, please, this is our internal affair.” At which point, Clinton could say, “Is it really? Didn’t your government ask our government to support your joint declaration in 1984? And we did, and we still do. How can you, therefore, break that agreement?”

The other point is it must be in the inherent interest of every government to see to it that China honors all international agreements. Who knows--next China may be breaking one with the U.S.A.

Q: If you have an opportunity to construct a U.S. basket of issues for China whereby human rights and trade are complementary, how would you do that?

A: People doing business in China need Hong Kong to remain free. If you look at it from a larger perspective, people say China has improved a lot economically--which is true--and, therefore, China has to be more democratic, and it will come naturally because you have a larger middle class and they want to have more say in the way government is run.

I’m not saying they are wrong, but what has it got to do with Hong Kong losing our freedom? It is not even logical. The fact that China is progressing economically--why then should we lose our freedoms? If we can continue to be free and have the rule of law and partial democracy, we will be a very good model for China.

Q: Is trade alone the cause of silence from the United States and other countries? Or is there a historic kind of stereotyping--just seeing Asia through a prism of money and opportunity?


A: People talk about Asian values--saying Western democracy is not suitable to China. I remember Deng Xiaoping addressing us when I was a member of the drafting committee of the Basic Law--I think it was in 1987. We were having a meeting in Great People’s Hall in China. Suddenly, we were told the great leader would address us. He mentioned democracy for Hong Kong. He said some people are flying the democratic flag in order to turn Hong Kong into a place of subversion. Then he talked about what a good idea it would be for China actually to have democracy . . . a long-term objective, but not in this generation.

His objective was to make sure every family in China could live comfortably, not rich but comfortably. He said we’re not ready for democracy. . . . Then he said, when our GDP would double, and double again--maybe in the beginning of the next century, remember he said this in 1987--we would then be ready.

I never understand why a lot of people think you are not to have democracy until you are economically there. If you look at Asia, how many countries have one-person, one-vote types of elections. I’m not saying, once you have it, you have democracy. What I am saying: Without it, you’ll never be there.

When it comes to Asian values and talk about human rights, I get angry because what is the difference between Asians and Westerners when it comes to human rights?

Asian values, Confucian values--the convenient excuse of Asian leaders trying to deny human rights to their own people and, of course, democracy. Confucius lived over 400 years before Christ, when the so-called West believed in the divine rights of kings. Confucius was miles ahead of his time. Don’t put the blame on poor Confucius.

Q: They succeeded in doing that?

A: Only because, somehow, European countries--and the U.S., Canada and Australia--believe there is something different when it comes to Asian values. Chinese leaders have said repeatedly they recognize only one human right for the Chinese people: the right to live and be fed. I don’t call that a human right. I call it an animal right.

Q: Would the United States be more effective in taking a multilateral approach toward China?


A: I’ve heard this kind of thing when I was in Europe. I could see a problem for any country--particularly, the smaller ones--to say we will defend Hong Kong’s human rights, because it takes a lot of courage for a government to do so. The Chinese leaders, of course, are pragmatic. But they don’t understand how important it is to keep Hong Kong free. They believe they can take away some civil liberties and we will be all right, so long as we continue to enjoy economic freedom. They believe they can put a noose around the neck of the goose, that it will still lay golden eggs. Then they will tighten the noose more and more, because it is in the communist blood to wish to control everything.

How many people have been telling the Chinese leaders it doesn’t work, please don’t kill the goose--or, at least, if you keep that noose around its neck, there will be no more golden eggs. People don’t say this to China. How can it be that you can separate economic freedom from political freedom?

Q: Have you met with Tung Chee-hwa, the head of the new Beijing-appointed provisional legislature?

A: We’ve met twice, and we will meet in two months. Mr. Tung is a nice guy. I have no doubt of his integrity, but what can he do? He was chosen by Beijing. Deng Xiaoping said, many years ago, about China--when there is a good system, even evil men cannot do evil. But when there is a no-good system, even good men cannot do good, but may be forced to do evil.

What I’m afraid of is that Mr. Tung is a good man who may be forced to do evil because he hasn’t got this democratic system to back him up. . . .

Q: Do you feel a sense of abandonment because a number of your colleagues, as well as numerous civil servants, are aligning with China and the new provisional government?

A: It’s not just that. I feel abandoned by the British government, by the U.S. government, by any government.

The British government, to begin with, because they made this agreement with China, and we were made all these promises jointly by China and Britain. I was so angry when, one or two years ago, a former British ambassador to China said in Hong Kong after his retirement that Hong Kong people must wake up and be prepared to sacrifice 3% of their freedom to preserve the other 97%. . . . Pursue this logic further. I suppose it also is in our interest to lose 50% or even 97% of our freedom to preserve the little 3%.

Why should we give up anything? Isn’t that the responsibility of the British government to make sure that it doesn’t happen? Isn’t that, likewise at least, the moral obligation of your government--to see to it that it doesn’t happen? So, of course, I feel abandoned.

Q: Are you worried about your personal safety?

A: Martin Lee is not my problem, it is their problem. Every morning, I look at this face when I shave: I see nothing wrong with it, but they do. I don’t think they would arrest me and put me in prison just because of my political beliefs and because I’m known outside Hong Kong. . . . I could apply for and obtain any passport from any country I wanted. But I don’t. I want to stay, because I know I am going to win.