The death of political idealism in Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - As this city's quest for democracy muddles along, the one-time
champion of the cause, Martin Lee Chu-ming - darling of Washington and London
in his heyday - finds himself an aging, lonely figure shunted to the sidelines
of the debate. Always reviled in the city's pro-Beijing circles as a traitor to
the motherland, he is now dismissed as yesterday's man by his own
Battered, frustrated and increasingly irrelevant, he is considering quitting
the Democratic Party, which he founded in 1994. What went wrong for Lee? What
went wrong for Hong Kong?
Now 72, Lee has not wavered from his principles since he became
the icon of Hong Kong's democracy movement in the wake of the Tiananmen Square
crackdown on June 4, 1989. Before that fateful day, he had been a prominent
lawyer, legislative councilor and member of the drafting committee for the
Basic Law, which would become the city's mini-constitution after the 1997
handover from British to Chinese rule. Afterwards, he was a Hong Kong hero.
A million people poured into the city's streets in support of the student-led
demonstrators who, calling for greater democracy on the mainland, were crushed
by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on June 4. In the Tiananmen aftermath,
Lee's ardent pro-democracy stance and increasingly forceful criticism of the
Chinese government turned the once high-flying, cognac-sipping barrister into a
man of the people. At one point, he even called for the overthrow of the
Forced off the Basic Law drafting committee and banned from travel in the
mainland, Lee would nevertheless go on to be showered with awards and accolades
by his Western admirers, becoming an international symbol of Hong Kong's
stubborn desire to be a free and independent part of China after the handover
as well as, in the vernacular of the Communist Party, "a running dog" of
More recently, Lee riled the Chinese leadership in a Wall Street Journal
article in which he called on Western governments to use the 2008 Summer
Olympic Games, hosted by Beijing, to pressure China on its human-rights record.
But that article, published in 2007, was his last big international splash, and
his influence in Hong Kong has been in decline since he stepped down as
chairman of the Democratic Party in 2001. After serving 23 years in the city's
Legislative Council (Legco), he chose not to stand for reelection in 2008.
This summer, however, has proved to be the low point in his political career,
with a new generation of leaders in his party completely disregarding his
uncompromising stance on democratic reform and striking what Lee saw as a
devil's bargain with the central government. In late June, with Lee throwing
barbs from the sidelines, the party that he founded 16 years ago played a
pivotal role in guiding a stingy, Beijing-approved political reform package
A similar package, thanks to Lee and the rest of the pan-democratic opposition,
had been defeated in 2005. In truth, as Lee is wont to point out, this summer's
accepted reforms, to be implemented in 2012, do not go much further than those
voted down in 2005. Lee's dream of a Hong Kong system based entirely on the
principle of one person, one vote remains a distant, if not impossible,
prospect. But for many Hong Kong residents weary of the political deadlock that
has gripped the city since the handover, the summer's Legco vote represents
welcome progress, modest though that progress may be.
After 13 years of political drought, here was a drink - just enough to wet a
parched throat but hardly adequate to slake such a long thirst. Touted as
"historic" by the Hong Kong government, the reforms will increase the size of
the Beijing-controlled election committee for Hong Kong's chief executive -
from 800 to 1,200 members - and add 10 seats to Legco's current 60-member
chamber, where the Chinese leadership also holds considerable sway, despite the
23 seats occupied by pan-democrats.
None of the pan-democrats was particularly moved by the promise of an enlarged
election committee perhaps even more loyal to the Chinese leadership than
before, but the Democratic Party, now led by Albert Ho Chun-yan, sought to
exploit the pledge to expand Legco.
Legco at present is equally divided between popularly elected legislators and
those chosen by special-interest groups, known as functional constituencies,
which largely represent the city's business ethos and, again, tend to be
amenable to Beijing. In a typically convoluted prescription, an initial Hong
Kong government proposal would have created five new democratically elected
seats and five new functional constituency seats to be chosen by the 405
elected members among 534 district councilors.
The compromise engineered with the central government by Ho and his advisors,
in a format yet to be decided, has representatives of district councils
competing for those five new functional constituency seats in citywide
Yes, that's progress - but not the sort of advance that fulfills the guarantee
of full democracy promised to Hong Kong in the Basic Law. Certainly, these
baby-step reforms fall far short of the democratic ideal for which Lee has
spent his political life fighting; they do, however, reflect Hong Kong's
political reality 13 years after the handover - a reality that many are coming
While Lee denounced his party's key role in the passage of the reform package
as a betrayal of its core principles and threatened to quit, a number of both
pro-Beijing and pro-democracy commentators hailed the compromise as a potential
political game-changer for Hong Kong. A small gaggle of pan-democrats also
opposed the reforms, but most of Lee's former political comrades abandoned the
old "All or nothing!" mentality and supported the package as a modest push
forward for democracy in the city. Even Lee's longtime friend, the now
cancer-stricken Szeto Wah, another aging warrior in Hong Kong's battle for
universal suffrage, favored the compromise.
Judging by opinion polls taken after the Legco vote, which approved the package
by a three-quarter's majority, the Hong Kong public embraces the new
pragmatism. Indeed, according to a recent University of Hong Kong poll, public
approval ratings for Ho, who received much of the credit for the deal, have
risen 4 points, to 55.2%, since his Legco triumph, making him the city's
third-most popular legislator. There was a time, of course, when Lee was at the
top of Legco's popularity stakes; now he is a mere asterisk.
While it is not clear where the Legco reforms will ultimately lead - perhaps
nowhere very salutary - there is a sense of a new political beginning in the
city. For the first time, a pro-democracy party has chosen negotiation and
compromise with the Chinese leadership and vice versa. Lee's adamant opposition
to this development has, by association, thrown him into the pan-democratic
radical camp along with loutish populist politicians such as "Long Hair" Leung
Kwok-hung and "Mad Dog" Raymond Wong Yuk-man, who base their limited but
enduring appeal on hurling fruit and obscenities at Chief Executive Donald
Tsang Yam-kuen and his ministers when they appear in the Legco chamber.
Hong Kong voters may find some relief in this summer's small legislative
breakthrough, but they also have a sobering political future to contemplate.
For example, what happened to the reassuring "one country, two systems" mantra
that was supposed to govern the city for at least 50 years beyond the handover?
When the Democratic Party bypasses the Hong Kong government to negotiate
directly with Beijing's representatives, that guiding ideal seems to have lost
its way ahead of its time.
Moreover, while the citywide election of five new functional constituency seats
has obvious popular appeal, it retains the principle of privileged,
special-interest access to the city's legislature. Functional constituencies,
established by the British and previously denounced by any self-respecting
democrat as "rotten boroughs", may be here to stay.
In 2017, Beijing has decreed, Hong Kong's chief executive can be democratically
elected and, by 2020, fully democratic Legco elections can follow. At this
point, however, no one really knows what definition of democracy those
elections might embrace.
What seems clear, however, is that they will not be anything like what Lee had
envisioned. Neither will there be any further honors for Hong Kong's fallen
hero in Washington or London.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at