Defending Hong Kong and Our Liberal Values is the Only Option

Martin Lee, member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, poses for a portrait in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, June 20, 2007. Lee, Photographer: Lee is the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. Nelson Ching/Bloomberg News

By Martin Lee

This opinion piece is part of the Silver Lining Series written by members of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), an organization of liberal and democratic parties in Asia, to celebrate its 25th Anniversary this 2018.

At midnight on July 1, 1997, my home, Hong Kong, a territory of then 6 1/2 million people was handed over from Britain to the People’s Republic of China.  Almost twenty-one years later, we have come to a critical moment: promised democratic development has been totally stopped; the young generation in Hong Kong is under attack; and the autonomy and core values we have worked hard to preserve are in serious danger.

I am 79 years old, and have been working for five decades as a barrister and advocate for Hong Kong.  I have been the chairman of the Bar, an elected legislator, a pro-democracy political party founder, and a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, which drafted the mini-constitution for Hong Kong.

In all of these roles, my goal has been to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms, core values, and way of life through our rule of law and an independent judiciary.  My generation has fought hard.  But it is the future generation represented by 21-year old Joshua Wong—who was recently sent to prison twice for his involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement—and other young leaders such as Nathan Law, Alex Chow, Agnes Chow and Raphael Wong, who are even more adamant that their rights be absolutely preserved.

For many decades Liberals around the globe have led support for Hong Kong, understanding that our values are aligned, and that Hong Kong is the best hope for seeing Liberal values take hold in the larger Mainland, China.

The framework for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty and people was established by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations.  In that treaty, which set out China’s “basic policies regarding Hong Kong”, we, the people of Hong Kong were promised “one country, two systems,” “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs”; and that our rights, freedoms, rule of law, and way of life would “remain unchanged for 50 years”.  Indeed, Deng Xiao-ping, the then paramount Chinese leader, and the architect of the one country, two systems policy, wanted prosperous and stable Hong Kong practising capitalism to lead China forward so that she would become one of the major economies of the world in 50 years’ time.  Thus, Deng adopted this policy for the good of the whole of China, not just Hong Kong.

Importantly, we Hong Kong people were also promised in the Basic Law that we would gradually progress towards the election of our Chief Executive and all legislators based on universal suffrage.  This arrangement has protected free political speech in the city and kept alive hopes for an electoral democracy that we were denied under 150 years of British rule.

Twenty years ago, the “one country” part of this agreement was implemented, when China assumed control over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

But Hong Kong people are still waiting for the “two systems” part to be fully implemented. Until we are masters of our own house through universal suffrage, “two systems” will never be a reality. And without genuine democratic elections, none of our freedoms is safe.

For if repressive laws are proposed by a Beijing-controlled government led by a Beijing-selected Chief Executive (as now) and passed by a Beijing-controlled legislature (as now), even independent and conscientious judges would have to apply those laws which would deprive our citizens of their freedom.

Indeed, “if men were angels”, we have nothing to worry about.  But if not, then we must insist that all the pledges given and founded on China’s own basic policies regarding Hong Kong be fully honoured.

Let me be clear: Hong Kong people are not challenging Beijing.  We are merely asking that China uphold her pledges to let us freely choose our leaders by universal suffrage as promised in the Basic Law, and exercise that “high degree of autonomy” already promised in the Joint Declaration as a condition for the handover of Hong Kong.  Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Indeed, those pledges were also given to the international community from whom both China and Britain sought public support of their Joint Declaration before it was announced on 26 September, 1984 in order to stem the emigration tide from Hong Kong.  Such public international support was enthusiastically given, and the emigration tide immediately abated.

Since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong journalists, lawyers, students, religious leaders, teachers, business executives, and other citizens have fought hard against every encroachment by Beijing.  Our society is as free as it is today because of those efforts.

But much more needs to be done if Hong Kong is to remain a model for people seeking democracy and opposing authoritarianism.

We have fought to preserve our core values—Liberal values—including the rule of law, transparency, a free flow of information, and free markets, the values that have long been a beacon for China and beyond.

But in June, 2014, the Central Government published a White Paper in seven languages, claiming, among other things, that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong , instead of the promised “high degree of autonomy” already given to Hong Kong.

Since then, we have seen an acceleration of worrying encroachments:

  • Beijing’s extrajudicial abductions of publishers and a businessman from Hong Kong to the Mainland;
  • The disqualification of candidates and elected legislators through Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law;
  • The prosecution and imprisonment of student leaders and many other demonstrators in the 79 –day Umbrella Movement;
  • Attacks on our independent judiciary; and
  • The application of Mainland laws to replace the Basic Law in the new terminal of the Express Rail Link.

These recent developments underline the urgent need for democratic elections to preserve basic rights and freedoms in our territory of 7 1/2 million people.

This trend also spotlights the role of the UK, US, and the international community.  The UK, being a signatory to the Joint Declaration, has completely dropped the ball in defending rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, in order to foster, in the famous words of George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, a “golden relationship with China”.

The governments of many countries, including USA, Canada, Australia, and many other countries, all supported and still support the “one country, two systems” policy, and they undoubtedly owe the people of Hong Kong as least a moral obligation to speak up when our system is being changed unilaterally by Beijing.

Our people cherish our rule of law and an independent judiciary to protect our freedoms, and recognize how important they are to any hope of a rights-respecting China in the future.

When Hong Kong was promised by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that all our freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years after 1997, we understood that we have to insist that every single freedom we enjoy is kept 100% intact.  If we do, there is a chance for those freedoms to come to China in the not too distant future.

But 20 years after the handover, China’s Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong has gone from being a representative office to blatantly issuing public pronouncements that undermine the integrity and autonomy of our system. This further alienates our youth who are our future, and generates yet more protests—obviously the opposite of what Beijing wants.  Indeed, it is increasingly our young people who are literally on the frontlines of protests for democracy in Hong Kong and get arrested as a result.  This includes many who weren’t even born at the time of the handover in 1997.

These young people understand very well what makes Hong Kong special and different from Mainland China.  They have a life ahead of them which they know must be based on “two systems.” They don’t want to live in a Hong Kong that becomes ever more like China’s other cities rife with of cronyism and corruption.  They value academic freedom, press freedom, uninhibited access to the internet and the ability to speak, write and protest freely. They know full well that these core values cannot last long without democracy.  They also know that democracy will not be handed to them on a silver platter even though it was promised in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

Indeed, the young generation has now seen 20 years of the older generation trying to get Beijing to fulfil its promise of two systems.  They have more reason than their parents and grandparents not to trust Beijing because the promises contained in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law have been flouted with impurity.

There is still a chance to restore proper relations between Hong Kong and China, which would involve Beijing discovering better judgment, and a willingness to listen to the people of Hong Kong who insist on the “two systems”, including our young leaders.  Then and only then can mutual trust be fostered.

Importantly, China needs to return to Deng’s blueprint for the “two systems” which would require the much bigger and more powerful Mainland to accommodate the much smaller Hong Kong, like a man playing the seesaw game with his little son, who can only participate in the game if his much heavier father would move towards the centre of the plank until an equilibrium is struck.

But today, the “two systems” part of the equation is not working because little Hong Kong has been pushed by mighty Beijing to move forward instead.  This trend must be reversed.  For a successful implementation of the one country two systems policy in Hong Kong will not only be a model for Taiwan, but also an incentive for our younger generations to stay and build on our successes.

Now is the time when the world is wondering about President Xi’s intentions, and if China will be a responsible leader of the global community, as countries with both Liberal and illiberal leaders grapple with the challenges of a relationship with China.

Thus, China needs to show the world that she can be trusted to uphold international agreements and play by the rules, particularly when President Xi is launching his ambitious initiative of “One Belt, One Road”, in which Hong Kong has a definite role to play, being the only city in China with the rule of law and an independent judiciary where legal disputes can be resolved to the satisfaction of all participating countries in the project.

What better place to start building international confidence than Hong Kong—over which China’s pledges were made in the eyes of the world?  And what better time to start rebuilding confidence in Hong Kong with the full support of our people, both young and old?

Martin Lee is the Founding Chairperson of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, and an Individual Member of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats.


Leave a comment


  1. Mr Lee wrote that he is 79 years old and therefore he was born in 1939. In 1964 Mr Lee was 25 years old and by 1989 he was 50 years old. What did he do between 1964 and say 1989 – 25 years – to get the British Colonial Government to give the Hong Kong people the right to vote for the Governor of Hong Kong instead of one appointed by his British Colonial master.

    I understand that Mr Lee is a Roman Catholic; I will be 73 years old in July and I too WAS a Roman Catholic. As a Catholic I was brought up to view the People’s Republic of China as a monster without being taught the real history of China and the reasons and circumstances that resulted in the Communist Party of China ruling China. Today China is the only country in the world that is experimenting with a different economic, social, political model, with all the pain, tragedies, sufferings, joy, failures, successes, set-backs and achievements, for the benefit of its vast population. Compare China with India, Pakistan, countries in the African continent that practice Western “democracy” which Mr Lee promotes fervently.

    In response to the West inspired cry for “democracy” and human rights, China has clearly stated that the three most important basic human rights for the Chinese are sufficient food, adequate shelter and education for all its people. This could only be delivered through economic development based on stability throughout China. The West took more than 300 years to establish democracy and human rights which still have severe limitations. The People’s Republic of China was established less than 70 years ago – amidst isolation imposed and led by the US, backed by the Catholic Church amongst others – and China only took its place in the UN in 1971 – many of the young “democratic” protestors are not aware of this. China will and is developing its own form of democracy.

    The cry for “Western democracy” in Hong Kong and mainland China is used by West to create various centres of power within of China (and Hong Kong IS part of China whether Mr Lee likes it or not) to weaken China’s central government so that it is easier for the West to penetrate Chinese society to revive its historical rape of China to enrich the ever avarice and greed of the Western elite and to retain and enhance their global dominance.

    In an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 26 February 2018, Peter Hartcher wrote:
    “A new World Bank report, which went online without fanfare a few days ago, sets out some remarkable results (of China). Here are just three.

    Lifting 850 million people out of poverty

    The world has a rough grasp of the fact that China has made great inroads on its poverty problem. But the World Bank report makes an extraordinary finding. Using the international poverty line adopted in 2011 of income of $US1.90 ($2.40) a person a day, adjusted for a country’s cost of living, it says: “The share of the population living in poverty fell from 88.3 per cent in 1981 to 66.6 per cent in 1990 and 1.9 per cent in 2013.”

    The number of people lifted out of poverty in that span? A total of 850 million. That’s two-and-a-half times the population of the US.

    It’s the equivalent of the entire number of humans on the planet until the 19th century. The World Bank observes that of all the people in the world who managed to escape poverty in the last four decades, seven of every 10 were Chinese. It describes the scale and speed of this achievement as “unprecedented in scope and scale”. Undeniably.
    China has about 25 million citizens still living under the poverty line, and the bank predicts that it will make further progress.

    China’s breakneck economic growth made this transformation possible, but while it was necessary it was not sufficient. Many countries in history have managed bursts of rapid growth; very few have lifted such a broad swath of its people out of poverty. Because it’s not just how much money a country makes but how it’s used to the benefit of its people that’s crucial.

    Social safety net

    And this is point two. China has leapfrogged other wealthier countries in offering a social safety net to its people. “Since the 1990s, China has introduced an array of social protection programs at a speed that is unprecedented internationally,” the World Bank remarks.

    Among its reforms are pension and health insurance programs, unemployment benefits, sickness and workplace injury assistance, and maternity insurance for women working in formal job sectors in the cities.
    Weaving such a broad safety net so quickly “is a feat that took decades to achieve in OECD countries, and one that many middle-income countries have not realised” the bank observes. Health and education services have been much improved.

    China still has shocking inequality and rural areas suffer most. But while it was worsening for decades and became as severe as US experience, the inequality gap has started gradually to close since 2008, according to the World Bank.

    Well-functioning institutions

    Point three helps explain how China managed to deliver so much growth with such broad benefit so quickly. The World Bank assesses China’s institutions as well-functioning. Interestingly, it finds that Communist Party political loyalties among officialdom has not corroded the effectiveness of its institutions.
    It says that the party has shaped the “core of a high-performing bureaucracy by integrating features of party loyalty with professionalisation of the civil service in a unique way”. It has “provided incentives through promotion and rewards to bureaucrats and local officials in return for their attainment of growth and job creation targets”.

    And instead of finding a deadening political oppressiveness in government departments, the World Bank reports that “the cadre management system and the broader political systems in China have facilitated vigorous contest ability of policy ideas, which promoted policy effectiveness”. The success and durability of the one-party state point to China as a standing challenge to democratic countries.

    The World Bank report, with the delightfully evocative title Systematic Country Diagnostic, is not, however, a portrait of a socialist Utopia. The bank finds huge problems. Environmental collapse beckons. Pollution is “an all-encompassing challenge” and climate change is wreaking havoc. Similarly, the levels of debt in the economy pose the danger of acute financial crisis. And the aging of the population, set to accelerate, will pose new problems of national solvency”.

    Anglo American “democracy”

    In the past 70 years the US, aided and supported by the UK (the West two leading “democracy” and human rights champions) has directed, organised and in many cases armed regime change (of democratic elected governments in many instances – Iran 1953, Iraq 1963 and 2003, Chile 1964-73 just a few examples) in more than 30 countries to “protect the democracy and human rights” of the West, the US in particular. Where were the democratic and human rights of millions upon millions slaughtered by the US?

    The US has 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad. A total of 400 US military bases, packed with warships, nukes and bombers, have now been set up across the Pacific region, including in South Korea and Australia. In contrast China has 1 military supporting facility in Djibouti, at the tip of Africa.

    Were Mr Lee loudly protesting against the British colonial rule of Hong Kong between 1964 and 1989? Were Mr Lee loudly protesting against US undermining and subversion of other sovereign states and US encirclement of China? I doubt as Mr Lee is a “traditional” good Catholic and a fervent servant of Western “democracy”. However, I stand to be corrected.

    China’s continuing successes do get up the noses of people who have anticipated and predicted the collapse of People’s Republic of China for the past 70 years. They are totally bewildered beyond their wits and utterly envious of China’s achievements for its people and the world. The only response from these people is to continue to spread prejudices against China instead of opening their mind and try to understand the China phenomena.

  2. Keep your mind closed to other opinions and you will flourish like a frog (toad is more appropriate) in your well – an excellent product of the LKY/PAP system. Why sign off as “Anonymous? Are you ashamed to be identified with your views?

  3. This Fool Lee is telling China, you must honor 1 country 2Systems, but with a twist that allow HK to be used as a base for US UK to subservient China, to smear your leaders, with a group of clowns like him carrying out umbrella revolution, color revolution, whatever the CIA want, leading to disorder, violent secession of HK from China.

    Should China follow this fool request? No. So you whine, you plead your colonial master to interfer, you no longer happy to live in HK, you want your British master back, so you may migrate with all your stooges to UK that is your real home.

    For all the unfair treaty grabbing HK from China through opium war, no single HK people feel they should stand up against the tyrant UK. Since when their Anglo master allowed them to choose their own leaders? Nevrr, yet they are happy. Now been unyoke from their Anglo master, given freedom to vote & rule by own HK people, they cry foul, they want independent, democracy… how hypocrite & no gratitude to Deng?

    So its time China took back full legistration of HK under CCP. Deng agreed to give 50yrs of 2Systems are for peace loving HK people, not for Anglo stooges & subversion. Since HK could not keep the agreement, and UK had ill intention to use HK to sabotage China, the agreement is thus invalid, no more effective.

    Just move all shipping port activities back to mainland, financial services to Shanghai, stop HK people to visit or work in China, and we shall see what it means by independent democracy they want. A bunch of fools used by West to destroy own great Chinese dream & future.