HONG KONG — He was once the most popular politician in Hong Kong, known by many as the “father of democracy.” He helped write the mini-Constitution that enshrined the city’s prized freedoms that mainland China lacks. For nearly four decades, he provoked Beijing by crusading for civil liberties, yet remained a respected part of Hong Kong’s political elite.
But for Martin Lee, the 82-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s first pro-democracy party, the unlikely balance that has defined his career has recently begun to collapse.
The pro-democracy movement that he helped begin has increasingly distanced itself from his ideals, as a younger generation of activists demands more drastic action than he is willing to endorse. After Mr. Lee recently proposed a compromise with Beijing on national security legislation, social media users assailed him as out of touch.
At the same time, Beijing has lost patience. Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed police chief recently called him a bad influence on the city’s young people, on the heels of a monthslong demonization campaign by the Chinese state news media. In April, Mr. Lee was arrested and charged for his activism for the first time.
Mr. Lee, who has a broad grin, is unshaken by the threat to his legacy.
“I’m a public enemy from China’s point of view. And the kids don’t like me, either, because I am not agreeing with their objects,” he said. But, he continued, popularity wasn’t the goal: “The goal is democracy for Hong Kong.”
Mr. Lee’s trajectory, from quixotic campaigner to mainstream icon, undaunted despite repeated setbacks, is in many ways the story of the democracy movement itself. Now he has become a locus for one of the movement’s key questions: whether, as Beijing tightens its grip and Hong Kong’s protesters grow more desperate, any room remains for Mr. Lee’s brand of hopeful pragmatism.
“His experience of getting arrested really marks a very important milestone in Hong Kong’s downfall,” said Victoria Hui, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame. “When even the moderates are arrested, then what is left?”
Mr. Lee was not considered moderate when he began campaigning for residents in Hong Kong to directly elect their top leaders in the 1980s. After the government offered limited elections in 1991 for a few legislative seats, Mr. Lee burned a printout of the proposal.
Even after he led his political party, the United Democrats, to a landslide victory in those elections, his fellow party members chastised him for demanding too much, too quickly, said Professor Hui, who worked for the party at the time.
“He wanted to have democracy as much as possible, and on those issues, there was just very little market,” she recalled.
But if Mr. Lee’s idealism was radical, his vision itself was hardly so. He is a staunch defender of “one country, two systems,” the political formula established when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997. Despite his opposition to the Communist Party, he has always considered himself Chinese; he seeks only for Hong Kong to safeguard its rights.
He is the perfect ambassador for that vision. Born in Hong Kong and educated in Britain, Mr. Lee embodies the city as it has always sought to present itself: polished, successful, effortlessly straddling East and West. Before entering politics, he was the Jaguar-driving chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. A devoted Catholic, he counts Cardinal Joseph Zen among his close friends. He switches among Mandarin, Cantonese and English with ease.
He learned his blend of pragmatism and idealism from his father, who was a lieutenant general in the Chinese Army before fleeing to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover in 1949. The elder Mr. Lee had studied with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of Communist China. Though the two men had vehement political differences, they remained cordial, Mr. Lee has recalled.
“One day they sat down and talked for 24 hours, each trying to convert the other,” Mr. Lee, who is married with a son, said in a 1991 interview. “Both failed, they shook hands, and parted company.”
Mr. Lee’s own faith in dialogue drove one of his primary forms of advocacy: courting international support. He traveled the world to lobby presidents, prime ministers and lawmakers, urging them to exert pressure on the Communist Party that Hong Kong alone could not.
The tactic enraged Beijing, which has repeatedly branded him a traitor.
Yet even as Mr. Lee’s fame grew, the prospects for democracy did not. And Hong Kongers — who not long before had wavered on direct elections — began growing impatient. By 2013, support for universal suffrage was so strong that a public outcry forced Mr. Lee to apologize after he proposed a compromise measure.
Then came 2014, and the huge, peaceful pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement. It galvanized tens of thousands of young people, but it also exposed rifts in the pro-democracy camp and ultimately failed. Over the past five years, as the government dealt blow after blow to the democracy movement, the more confrontational bloc’s criticisms only grew.
By last year, when antigovernment protests erupted again, those once-fringe voices had entered the mainstream. Growing numbers of protesters have thrown Molotov cocktails at police officers and embraced a scorched-earth philosophy known as “laam caau.” Moderate factions, keen to stay unified, have refrained from criticizing them.
The exception has been Mr. Lee.
As the movement around him has grown more combative, Mr. Lee has called the violence counterproductive and pressed for renewed promises from China. He has done so despite an escalating campaign against him by the Chinese state media, which has called him a “die-hard proxy for foreign anti-China forces” and named him one in a “Gang of Four” that Beijing said had incited the unrest.
Even his arrest in April for participating in an “unauthorized assembly” last year — a charge that many called blatantly political, given his relatively low involvement in the latest protests — did not change Mr. Lee’s message. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
Mr. Lee describes his constancy as a moral imperative. But it has set him on a collision course with the movement that he helped found. While he said he respected the younger generation’s frustrations, he called its laam caau philosophy naïve, and said calls for independence would cost Hong Kong its international support.
“The laam caau people, they haven’t got a clue,” said Mr. Lee, who though always courteous can be startlingly blunt. “If you start the revolution, and then you’re completely defeated, many people will die with you. So how does that help Hong Kong?”
Abandoning negotiation would only give China an excuse to crack down, he said. “Don’t be so stupid and say, ‘OK, you walk away from that, so do we,’” he said. “You are falling into their trap.”
Mr. Lee’s views have drawn fire from many protesters. When he suggested in a recent interview that Beijing allow Hong Kong to pass its own national security legislation, rather than impose it directly, protesters pilloried him online, calling the proposal another failed attempt at appeasement.
“He is consistent. I respect him,” said Andy Chan, 29, who founded the now-outlawed Hong Kong National Party, which supports independence. “But he is not making any impact.”
Mr. Lee readily acknowledges that the disillusionment with his approach is a testament to the fact that his decades of activism have not achieved democracy.
But the criticism also suggests that he has succeeded in a different way: awakening his fellow Hong Kongers to the cause to which he has dedicated his life and turning his once-lonely quest into a movement with enough strength to rattle Beijing.
Even as so many seemed to be turning away from his idealism now, Mr. Lee said he was sure it would find an audience eventually. He continues to drum up international support: Last week, he spoke to a group of students in Sweden, lawyers in the United States and a think tank in Australia — “anybody who will listen” — in a series of online video conferences.
“When you fail, don’t give up, and then do the next thing to bring it about. When you fail again, continue,” he said. “Because they are wrong, every time they deny it to us. They are wrong. And we should tell the whole world.”
Bella Huang contributed research.