Beijing broke its promises to Hong Kong, veteran Democrat laments 20 years after the handover
Lee Wing-tat recalls an air of fear rather than joy among the crowds when the city was handed back to the communist rulers of Beijing
When Hong Kong changed from a British colony to a Chinese special administrative region 20 years ago, those living in the city witnessed the significant moment from different locations, on different jobs and with different feelings. All the little things they experienced, from a hug with Chinese officials to a change in police badges, will be remembered as parts of the city’s history.
On the night of the handover, while people celebrated, others braved the rain to protest.
Democratic Party member Lee Wing-tat was one of 20 former legislators who stood on the Legislative Council balcony, looking over the thousands who had gathered in Statue Square.
It was July 1, 1997, only minutes after Hong Kong had officially passed from Britain to the People’s Republic. The Democrats ceased to be legislators at the stroke of midnight.
“I didn’t find joy among the crowds. They only felt sorrow and [had] worried faces,” Lee said, remembering the night of the handover.
“It’s not easy for a free and capitalist society [to be] returned to a very oppressive communist regime.”
The Democratic Party, which Lee had represented in the Legislative Council, supported the handover.
But the party was worried that the transition would mean restrictions on Hongkongers’ rights, Lee told the South China Morning Post at his Democratic Party office.
“I love China because I’m Chinese, I love the people, I love the culture, but I do not actually like the kind of government in mainland China because it is very oppressive to different kinds of people.”
With international media outlets set to descend on Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover, the Democratic Party realised it was an opportune moment to tell the world about its fears.
“We wanted to tell the world that although we support this, we still have a lot of things that are not finished,” Lee said.
The colonial government and the incoming Hong Kong government were both nervous about being embarrassed in front of the international media and asked the Democratic Party to consider not protesting on the Legco balcony.
But Lee and his fellow legislators told the authorities that if they were not allowed to protest, they would climb up to the balcony using bamboo ladders, which would be far more discomfiting.
The protesters and then secretary for home affairs Michael Suen Ming-yeung reached what Lee called a “secret agreement”. Suen told them: “You have no rights, but the door is not closed.”
“That’s it. ‘The door is not closed’,” Lee recalled. “This means he gave a sign that we were free to enter the Legislative Council, even though we were not members [after the handover].”
But the Democratic Party members were nervous Suen would go back on their secret deal, so Lee and a handful of fellow legislators headed to the chamber on the afternoon of June 30, armed with sandwiches, water and tea.
They opted to skip the lavish handover banquet in the Convention Centre and instead camped out, watching television, reading and waiting to let their fellow legislators inside later that night.
In the end, Suen kept his promise – the door was not locked.
After midnight, Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming stood on the balcony with 19 other party members and told the crowd: “We shall return.”
“You didn’t find joyful faces among the protesters. Not only the people on the balcony, but also the people below in the crowd,” Lee said of the scene.
“Some had experienced communist China – when the Chinese Communist Party got to power in the mainland,” he said, adding that the ups and downs in China’s history gave Hongkongers little confidence.
As for Lee, he felt calm. He had prepared for that moment for a long time. It was already light by the time Lee went to bed, and he slept the whole day.
“After that, work starts,” he said, referring to the first post-1997 Legislative Council elections the following year at which the Democrats returned.
When he reflected on the past 20 years, Lee thought his worries were valid.
“They [mainland China] actually intrude into the core values of Hong Kong, about freedom, the court system and also about whether we enjoy the right to elect our own government,” he said.
“There are so many promises in the past and you can say that most or all were broken in the past 20 years.”