Hero of his time
This may sound harsh - and I hope Martin Lee Chu-ming won't take it the wrong way - but most people have outgrown him. He hasn't kept pace with Hong Kong's changing mindset over how to achieve democracy. His name was once synonymous with our democracy movement, but today's movement is very different from the one Lee inspired all those years ago.
Many now see democracy as improving governance in Hong Kong rather than keeping mainland communism at bay. That's why it matters little whether or not Lee quits the Democratic Party, as he has hinted he might. It won't be a game-changer either way. Whether he leaves the party he helped found or stays is simply a matter between him and his conscience.
I am not saying Hongkongers no longer identify with Lee's cause. They do. But they no longer believe his way is the only way. I have known Martin Lee for many years. I still remember his visits to Washington - where I worked as a correspondent - in the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong. I remember him as an idealist, someone who was so committed to winning democracy for Hong Kong that he won the admiration of, and access to, many American political leaders.
If there are any heroes in Hong Kong's fight for democracy, Lee is certainly one of them. The other is, of course, Democratic Party old guard member Szeto Wah, who is now suffering from cancer. Together, they stuck firmly to their principles, crusading for democracy to the point that they were banned from the mainland.
That is why it is so painful to see the bitterness between them now. It is painful to see these two old soldiers fighting each other over how they should fight for the cause they both so passionately believe in. They spearheaded Hong Kong's democracy movement, which came of age after the violent 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. It was a movement that captured hearts and minds. Hongkongers saw it as a noble cause led by patriots they looked up to.
Can we really say the people still look up to today's leaders of the democracy movement? Who are the leaders, anyway? Is it legislator 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung, who hurls bananas at the chief executive in the name of democracy? Or his party colleague Wong Yuk-man, who behaves like a foul-mouthed thug in the legislature? How can you fight for democracy when you're fighting amongst yourselves over how to fight for it?
We now have the undignified spectacle of party founder Lee and party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan in a testy public exchange over accusations that Ho betrayed the democratic cause. Lee is mad with Ho for leading moderate democrats into striking a political reform deal with Beijing which, he says, betrays the democratic cause. He now thinks he could be truer to his principles by fighting for democracy outside the party.
But there's another, shriller truth. It is that his will become a voice in the wilderness if he quits the party. Even the most powerful message goes unheard when no one is listening. Hongkongers have long listened to and embraced Lee's message of extracting genuine democracy from Beijing.
But, as I said, people have changed over the past two decades. The fear of communism that powered the democracy movement after the Tiananmen bloodshed and leading up to the handover has ebbed. Hongkongers want democracy for its own sake because the current system of government has entrenched such unfairness in the system that it nauseates decent-minded people.
After more than two decades of confronting Beijing, people are now in the mood for compromise. They've won so little after fighting for so long that they've concluded it's better to take what's on offer for now than to end up, yet again, with nothing.
I don't think Ho is a traitor for negotiating a partial democracy deal with Beijing. Rather, I think he's a hero for having the guts to do it. Lee will always head the list of democracy heroes. But wouldn't it be great if these two heroes could work together for what we all want? Surely, the stuff of heroes is give and take.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster