I still remember midnight June 30, 1997. I was one of dozens of journalists waiting outside the old Legislative Council building when Martin Lee Chu-ming, the late Szeto Wah and their Democratic Party comrades raised their fists and vowed "We shall return". I had tears in my eyes then. These were men who were ready to go to jail and face torture for democracy. South Africa had Nelson Mandela. Former Czechoslovakia had Vaclav Havel. Poland had Lech Walesa. Hong Kong, I thought, had Martin Lee.
This week, I read his commentary on democracy in this newspaper. I shed no tears; just kept rolling my eyes. Lee would have joined those great dissident leaders if Beijing had remained a totalitarian state. Alas, its behaviour has been benign and tolerant, at least towards Hong Kong. That rather spoils Lee's chance at martyrdom. Long on emotion but short on analysis, his piece would have done just fine for his fans. It is full of his old ideals, untainted by developments in Hong Kong and on the mainland since the handover.
He was angry, he writes, for being "thrown out of the Legislative Council" in 1997. Well, Beijing imposed the Provisional Legislative Council and overturned the "through train" for Legco because, with reason, it considered Chris Patten's unilateral political reform a breach of the deal it struck with the previous Thatcher government. Lee writes: "[Our] core values are obstacles to Beijing, as it wants to control Hong Kong just as they control the mainland." This was what everyone assumed in 1997. The past 15 years rather prove Beijing has honoured "one country, two systems" to an extent unanticipated by most so-called old China hands. Beijing may not be Lee's cup of tea, but it is a legitimate government.
On democracy, Lee writes: "I asked … are we not ready?" Of course we are ready. It's Beijing that is not ready. On this, everyone can agree, even if we can't all say it out loud. You can't expect Beijing to behave like a democracy when it is not one. But if Ebenezer Scrooge was willing to donate a significant sum to charity - that is, offering conditional suffrage to Hong Kong - you have to admit this is a real start, not window-dressing. And you negotiate from there, in good faith, not by vilifying Beijing at every opportunity.