Martin Lee's comments won't help build bridges

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2007, 12:00am

Martin Lee Chu-ming, the Democratic Party's founding chairman, has every right to express his views on any subject. That includes his call for the US president to use the Olympics to put pressure on Beijing over its human rights record.

But while his publicly stated opinions fall well within the boundaries of free speech, the decision to make them lacks political wisdom and tact. It will fuel Beijing's worst fears about Hong Kong being used as a base for foreign intervention in China's affairs. This does not help either the pro-democracy camp or the cause of furthering democratic development in our city.

This controversy comes at a sensitive time when democratic reform proposals are being drafted. It is to be hoped that Beijing can be persuaded that democracy is in the best interests of Hong Kong and China as a whole.

The central government has long harboured doubts about introducing universal suffrage in our city, fearing it might be used by foreign powers to destabilise Hong Kong and perhaps the country. There is no evidence that this would happen or that there is any prospect of it. But Mr Lee's actions will only increase such suspicions and make it all the harder for the city to convince Beijing that it has nothing to fear from universal suffrage. It plays into the hands of those who do not want to see democratic development and are happy to use the 'foreign intervention' argument to oppose it.

There is nothing wrong with calling for improvements in the mainland's human rights record. There are many areas in which progress is needed, especially with regard to civil and political rights. During the Olympics, the eyes of the world will be on China, and there is reason to believe that improvements will be made.

But liberty also has to do with lifting tens of millions out of extreme poverty and allowing them to look forward to a better future for their children. Over the past 30 years, China, through its policy of opening up and economic reforms, has made immense progress in terms of improving people's lives, and the work is ongoing.

The latest furore over Mr Lee's remarks, made in an article in The Wall Street Journal on October 17, has also come at a crucial time for the pro-democracy camp, which needs to establish itself as a party that has more to offer than the call for universal suffrage.

It is important for Hong Kong that relations between the democrats and Beijing improve. There is a need for bridges to be built, and for trust and understanding to be developed on both sides. Constructive steps are required. For the democrats, this means exercising greater sensitivity about the way in which their views are conveyed. Mr Lee's actions, past and present, have made the process of building ties all the more difficult.

There may also be more immediate ramifications. Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, who is standing in the forthcoming Legco by-election, is seeking to convince voters that she is willing and able to communicate with Beijing. Mr Lee was instrumental in persuading her to stand. His remarks - and the controversy they have sparked - will not make her task any easier.

Mr Lee has, over many years, played a leading role in pushing for democracy in Hong Kong. That long journey - it is to be hoped - will soon reach its conclusion with the laying down of a road map and timetable for reform. Stirring controversy and antagonising Beijing with calls for foreign action over the mainland's human rights record will not help achieve that aim.