Hong Kong political reform

Democracy in Hong Kong would do wonders for China’s global reputation

Martin Lee says if China is seeking to build its international reputation, honouring its pledges to Hong Kong, such as granting the city a high degree of autonomy and the right to choose its leaders by universal suffrage, would be a good place to start

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 11:21pm

At midnight on July 1, 1997, my home, Hong Kong, a territory of then 6.5 million people, was handed over from Britain to the People’s Republic of China.

Almost 21 years later, we have come to a critical moment: promised democratic development has been totally stopped, the young generation in Hong Kong is under attack, and the autonomy and core values we have worked hard to preserve are in serious danger.

I am 79 years old, and have been working for five decades as a barrister and advocate for Hong Kong. I have been the chairman of the Bar, an elected legislator, a founder of a pro-democracy political party, and a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, which drafted the mini-constitution for Hong Kong.

In all of these roles, my goal has been to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms, core values and way of life through our rule of law and an independent judiciary.

What is the Basic Law of Hong Kong?

My generation has fought hard. But it is the future generation, represented by 21-year old Joshua Wong Chi-fung – who was recently sent to prison twice for his involvement in the 2014 “umbrella movement” – and other young leaders such as Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Alex Chow Yong-kang, Agnes Chow Ting and Raphael Wong Ho-ming, who are even more adamant that their rights be absolutely preserved.

For many decades, liberals around the globe have led support for Hong Kong, understanding that our values are aligned, and that Hong Kong is the best hope for seeing liberal values take hold in mainland China. The framework for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty and people was established by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations. In that treaty, which set out China’s “basic policies regarding Hong Kong”, we, the people of Hong Kong, were promised “one country, two systems” and a “high degree of autonomy”.

‘One country, two systems’ and a vicious cycle in Hong Kong

Twenty years ago, the “one country” part of this agreement was implemented, when China assumed control over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. But Hong Kong people are still waiting for the “two systems” part to be fully implemented.

Until we are masters of our own house through universal suffrage, “two systems” will never be a reality. And without genuine democratic elections, none of our freedoms are safe.

How Hong Kong’s Occupy protests kicked off

Let me be clear: Hong Kong people are not challenging Beijing. We are merely asking that China uphold its pledges to let us freely choose our leaders by universal suffrage, as promised in the Basic Law, and exercise that “high degree of autonomy” already promised in the Joint Declaration as a condition for the handover of Hong Kong. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

Since June 2014, when the central government published a white paper claiming that it has ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ over Hong Kong, there has been an acceleration of worrying encroachments

But since June 2014, when the central government published a white paper claiming that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, there has been an acceleration of worrying encroachments which underline the urgent need for democratic elections to preserve basic rights and freedoms in our territory of 7.5 million people.

This trend also spotlights the role of the United Kingdom, the United States and the international community. The UK, being a signatory to the joint declaration, has completely dropped the ball in defending rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, to foster, in the famous words of British politician George Osborne, a “golden relationship with China”.

The governments of many countries, including the US, Canada and Australia, all supported and still support the “one country, two systems” policy, and they undoubtedly owe the people of Hong Kong a moral obligation to speak up when our system is being unilaterally changed by Beijing.

China needs to return to Deng Xiaoping’s blueprint for the “two systems”, which would require the much bigger and more powerful mainland to accommodate the much smaller Hong Kong, like a man playing the see-saw game with his little son, who can only participate in the game if his much heavier father moves towards the centre of the plank until an equilibrium is struck.

For a successful implementation of the “one country, two systems policy” in Hong Kong will not only be a model for Taiwan, but also an incentive for our younger generations to stay and build on our successes.

What better place to start building international confidence than Hong Kong – over which China’s pledges were made before the eyes of the world? And what better time to start rebuilding confidence in Hong Kong with the full support of our people, both young and old?

Martin Lee is the founding chairperson of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong and an individual member of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, an organisation of liberal and democratic parties in Asia, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year