The democrat who wouldn't be turned

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2008, 12:00am

Bowing out, Martin Lee regrets the key goals that eluded his grasp

As one of the first elite figures picked by Beijing in the early 1980s to prepare to run Hong Kong after 1997, Martin Lee Chu-ming could have expected his political career to turn out very differently from how it did.

So it was understandable that he could barely conceal his regret as he announced his decision yesterday to retire from electoral politics in the summer after a Legislative Council career spanning 23 years.

He lamented that his twin dreams, of universal suffrage and freedom to return to his homeland, had not yet come true.

Mr Lee was among a delegation of young Hong Kong figures invited by Beijing to express their concerns about the handover.

He was seen as a key figure in the Communist Party's united-front game plan, and was appointed to the Basic Law Drafting Committee when it was formed in 1985.

The same year he won the legal functional constituency seat in the Legco election, which marked the city's first, albeit tiny, step towards an elected legislature.

After People's Liberation Army troops opened fire on student demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Mr Lee and his long-time ally Szeto Wah resigned from the Basic Law drafting committee.

Mr Lee has only been allowed to visit the mainland once since then, and only as a member of a delegation comprising all 60 lawmakers.

Hopes for a thaw were high when Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen led the delegation - which included 10 other pan-democrats previously denied entry to the mainland - to Guangdong in September 2005. It proved to be a false dawn.

Aside from the strain between the pan-democrats and Beijing, Mr Lee has become a regular target for attack by Beijing loyalists.

He was accused by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa of bad-mouthing Hong Kong when, on a trip overseas, he criticised the city's slow pace of democratisation and inadequacies in human rights protection.

Last year, Beijing loyalist Tsang Hin-chi called him a traitor when he wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he urged US President George W. Bush to use the opportunity of the Beijing Olympic Games to seek human rights improvements on the mainland.

Mr Lee was the natural leader of the Democratic Party when it was formed in 1994 from a merger of the two major pro-democracy groups - the United Democrats and Meeting Point - two years after the first direct election for Legco seats.

One of the abiding images of Mr Lee is of him and fellow democrats demanding a share of power from last governor Chris Patten at Government House after they snapped up 19 seats in the 1995 Legco poll.

It contrasted sharply with the sight of a remorseful Mr Lee when he admitted that the party had made a serious tactical blunder in the final hours of voting in the 2004 Legco election.

Fearing that Mr Lee would lose his seat, the Democrats sent out a last-minute call for party loyalists to turn out to vote for him. The tactic cost ally Cyd Ho Sau-lan her seat.

A humbled Mr Lee said later that the blunder had brought the most unhappy victory of his otherwise shining political journey.