Pushing the boundaries
There is no one like Martin Lee Chu-ming. He will have no successor when he retires from the Legislative Council. The fight for democracy for Hong Kong will go on, but it will be a very different fight. What makes Mr Lee unique is his conviction that democracy for Hong Kong is a matter of international concern and importance. This explains his tireless endeavours to galvanise America and Europe to do their part in urging Beijing to listen to the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. He insists that the Sino-British Joint Declaration is an international treaty, and every nation has a stake in it.
He keeps reminding the world that China is a communist state with a poor human rights record and no rule of law, and that the democratisation of Hong Kong cannot be left to Beijing. On the other hand, democracy in Hong Kong will help democracy and the rule of law develop on the mainland.
Such views are not unusual for democrats, but he alone dares to act on them loudly, consistently, fearlessly and as often as he considers necessary.
'Internationalising the problem of Hong Kong' was made the No 1 taboo by the Chinese leadership, including the late Deng Xiaoping , because this was the one weapon that could worry the leadership.
Knowing this, Mr Lee played the 'international card' unhesitatingly when more prudent politicians held back.
It took courage and stamina, and he has both, though he wears his bravery mildly. But he is more than that; he is the only Hong Kong democrat who can be called an international icon for the democratic cause. No one is more persuasive in a language that an international forum understands.
Mr Lee's international lobbying has always been controversial. He has been denounced, and branded a 'traitor', by Beijing officials and 'patriotic' organs in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong public is told that this has set back democracy. Large numbers of the public are against what appears to them to be inviting foreign intervention. Because of all this, Mr Lee's action has caused concern and opposition even among his party members and allies. They question his judgment, if not his moral courage and conviction, or the timing, if not the nature, of his action.
The international role he chooses to play and his uncompromising attitude have also been the cause of some of Mr Lee's popularity over the years. Much of this is a sign of the changing times.
Twenty-three years ago, the battle for the democrats, backed by an anti-communist public, was to press the British government to wrest more democracy from the Chinese government. Thirteen years ago, at the brink of the handover, their mission was to conserve, as much as possible, Hong Kong's freedoms and vital institutions and, on those foundations, build a democratic government as fast as possible, before these foundations crumbled.
Now, more than 10 years after the handover and following the mainland's economic transformation, the landscape is very different. China is as much envied as feared. Chinese rule over Hong Kong is firmly established. The special administrative region government has neither the will nor the desire to fight for more democracy than Beijing is prepared to grant. Hong Kong's international presence, even the use of English, has shrunk.
The younger generation who, attracted by the vision of democracy, have embraced politics, are anxious to be able to participate and make headway. For many, the question is not whether to compromise, but what the terms are. Few aspire to succeed Mr Lee.
And yet, it is not untimely for him to leave Legco. The battleground for democracy has also moved. Thirteen years ago, the action was focused on an elected Legco to advance constitutional development or block laws infringing fundamental freedoms. Now, the perpetuation of functional constituencies and the relentless sabotage of Legco's powers and functions are putting these goals beyond its reach.
The focus now shifts to the public, to strengthen people's understanding of what democracy really means, and to convince all sectors of society that such institutions as functional constituencies are blocking the road to fairness and progress.
The big picture which the world has to keep in sight has not changed, though the conditions are tougher. It is that Hong Kong democracy is pivotal to world peace because of its effect on China as a whole, and getting there is not just our business, but everyone's. More than ever, Hong Kong needs the international advocate.
Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is a legislator representing the legal profession