Hong Kong Protests: Martin Lee, ‘Father of Democracy,’ Caught Between Extremes

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?”

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.”

“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.

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