Martin Lee, the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong, speaks about the ongoing protests and China’s threat to use military force to stop the demonstrations.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion about the mass protests against China, which have entered their fourth month. We continue our conversation with Martin Lee, a Hong Kong politician and lawyer, founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, considered the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Martin Lee, I wanted to ask you — many of the young protesters who have been out in the streets now for weeks were either not born or very young when the British handed Hong Kong back to Chinese control. Could you talk about how has life changed in Hong Kong since it came back to being part of China? Has there been a material either economic or political change versus what existed under British colonial rule?
MARTIN LEE: Some of these protesters indeed are very young. They are teenagers. So, they actually did not live under British rule, but they must have heard from their parents what life was in those days. And so, they enjoy the freedoms, with the rule of law. And in the early days of Hong Kong under Chinese rule, there was very little intervention from across the border. And these were the things they would appreciate.
And then the interference increased by leaps and bounds recently, and so they they are not comfortable about these things. And then they see democracy being delayed, and again and again. And so, they see a government which doesn’t stand on the side of Hong Kong people, but on the side of Beijing. So, the last thing, which was this extradition bill, was the last straw which breaks the camel’s back for many of them. And that is why they then decided to oppose it, even though they are unlikely to be affected by this bill becoming law. But they effectively blocked it to make it impossible for the legislators to enter into our Legislative Council building on the 12th of June; otherwise, the bill would have become law.
So they did a good thing for Hong Kong people by preventing the bill from being passed into law. And so, they — but the government did not accede to the reasonable demands of scrapping the bill instead of just suspending it, nor the appointment of an independent commission of inquiry. There were three other minor demands, mind you, including a very big one, which is democracy, which was promised, but which was delayed and delayed. So they want democracy now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you say that the Chinese government gradually increased its interference in Hong Kong, could you give examples of some of the other ways that it began to exercise a heavier hand in the territory?
MARTIN LEE: Well, denying democracy, of course, is very obvious. And that includes the lack of any opportunity now for the Hong Kong people to elect a chief executive, according to universal suffrage, which was promised. Now, it is true that five years ago, on the 31st of August, that Beijing decided to allow Hong Kong people one person, one vote in the election of the chief executive, but subject to a nomination procedure which would effectively allow Beijing to select all the candidates for Hong Kong people. I objected to it. I said, “What’s the point of allowing us to elect a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana?” So we blocked it.
And as a result of that, the chief executive of Hong Kong would not go back to any discussions with Hong Kong people with a view to coming up with a better set of electoral arrangements. That is why there’s no promise at all now as to when we will ever have genuine democracy, both for the election of a chief executive and for the entire Legislature. Only half of our legislators are now elected on a “one person, one vote” basis.
AMY GOODMAN: When you talk about the extradition law, if you can explain exactly what it is and why it is so threatening to the people of Hong Kong, why these mass protests erupted?
MARTIN LEE: At the moment, there are two laws governing it. One was passed just two months before the handover on the 1st of July, 1997. It was passed in April that year. Another one was passed two [months] after the handover, in September 1997. The effect of both laws is very strange, in a way. The Beijing government, which is central government, which decides on all foreign affairs matters for Hong Kong, has given the Hong Kong government authority to enter into any sort of extradition arrangement, short-term or long-term, with any country in the world, except any other part of China, which means that the Hong Kong government is stopped by law to enter into any rendition arrangement. It’s called “rendition” because it’s extradition between two separate territories of the same country. So there is no transfer of fugitive offenders possible, either from mainland China to Hong Kong or the other way around. Right? Whereas we can have these arrangements with any other country in the world.
But in spite of that, the Chinese government had been nice to Hong Kong government. So, whenever the Hong Kong government wants to have certain offenders who committed criminal offenses in Hong Kong but are now hiding in the mainland, there is no official channel for any rendition. But the Chinese government have, throughout these years, agreed to arrest these people, when they find them, and bring them across the border, just the bridge, the Shenzhen bridge — all right? — and leave the people there, so that our police can go there and arrest them and bring them to Hong Kong for trial. So, they would allow on the average of two or three such transfers per year, whereas there’s no transfer the other way around. We don’t transfer offenders to China for trial. But they do, unofficially.
Why? Because the Chinese government, both then and now, understand that their judicial system is not up to international standards, whereas ours are. So, they would allow Hong Kong this vantage of entering into arrangements with any country in the world, and they would accept that this arrangement will not affect China. And yet they actually do it for Hong Kong now. And that is because the Chinese government knows that the judicial systems are not the same. The hope was that one day China would improve its legal and judicial systems so that Hong Kong people would have no fear of having our people being transferred to mainland court for trial, so that they will then be given a fair trial with their human rights respected and all that. Now, but we know that the judicial system in China has not improved. We know that whenever people are brought back to China for trial, they are made to confess before a TV camera. And we know that sometimes their family members are not even allowed in when the son or daughter is being tried.
So, but to make it worse, last year, President Xi Jinping explained to the Chinese Communist Party what he wants to do by ruling the country through law. He said, “It doesn’t mean that I accept the separation of power. It doesn’t mean that the judiciary will be independent, because the judiciary is there to strengthen the governing position of the Chinese Communist Party, which means the courts of China will deliver a verdict or judgment according to the wishes of the party.” Now, once he said that, who in the world would have confidence in their judicial system? Of course, our Hong Kong people do not want any one of us to be transferred back to Beijing or Shanghai for trial. But if the bill had been passed into law, it’s not just us, but it’s foreign investors living in Hong Kong, or even on transit to Hong Kong, can be brought back to China for trial on trumped-up charges, because they know, we know, that they do bring people to court on trumped-up charges, and then you’ll be convicted. And you may even have to face many years of imprisonment.
So, that bill is clearly bad. And so the bill ought not to be represented to the Legislative Council, until and unless Beijing’s or the mainland court system has improved to international standards. So we need that promise from Carrie, or at least we want her to withdraw the bill rather than merely to suspend it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Martin Lee, I wanted to ask you about the position of the business community in Hong Kong vis-à-vis these protests. Now, Hong Kong is clearly — it’s an international center of finance. It has many foreign investors, as well as billionaires, many billionaires. It’s got a a Gini index of inequality that is almost outrageous in terms of the the difference between the wealthy and and the poorest Hong Kong residents. But many of the Chinese capitalists, in particular, depend on the People’s Republic of China for a lot of their business. And I’m wondering how they are responding to the protests of the young people and the general population of Hong Kong.
MARTIN LEE: Of course, a lot of people are not happy with it, because it affects their business, it affects their way of life. But to the young people there in the frontline, they are prepared to sacrifice 10 years of their young lives by going to prison, if convicted on riot charges and so on. And some of them are even prepared to give up their young lives to defend Hong Kong as an international city.
But they have seen us fighting for democracy by using peaceful means and being ignored by Beijing all these 35 years. So they say, “We have to use some force.” And they did so and succeeded in at least getting the bill suspended. So, they thought that force is necessary, which I disagree. But how do you persuade them, since they achieved something, and I failed to achieve anything in my 35 years of championing this cause of democracy by peaceful means?
So, they are very unhappy that the government is not responding to them at all. And so they continue with the fight. And unfortunately, they also escalated the degree of force used. Now, I am — I, myself, I am opposed to violence. But I can’t blame these young people. Why doesn’t the government respond to them, particularly when 80% of the whole population of Hong Kong support them on the two key issues we talked about? Surely, Carrie Lam should at least do that. And then they maybe, perhaps, can be persuaded to, “OK, we use — we will stop using any force, but we must then immediately start negotiations or discussions for the future.” But there’s no reason to deny democracy to Hong Kong people now. It is already long, long overdue. But the government is not doing anything.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you fear that there will indeed be an intervention of troops from — or police and troops from the People’s Republic into Hong Kong if these protests continue?
MARTIN LEE: Of course, I’m afraid, because if you look at the track record of how the central government in Beijing deals with Hong Kong, whenever there are massive demonstrations, their answer is it’s safer to use suppression more than necessary than using less force or suppression. Then it’s [inaudible] rather by going too much to the left. That is the way of expressing, going to the left, meaning use a drastic means of suppression. So they would use that, I’m afraid.
But I hope — I hope that this particular one is too big, because when 2 million people take to the streets against a government proposal, it’s more than one-quarter of a population of seven-and-a-half million. Can you imagine any country in the world still holding onto power when more than one-quarter of its population are up in arms by demonstrating in the streets peacefully? And yet, none of our ministers, none of our secretaries is required to resign. So the same government continues, but it’s not doing anything. That’s a problem. And so, I suppose they’re waiting for a decision from the president of China, Xi Jinping. And I hope, hoping against hope, that he won’t do the thing which they have been doing before, using suppression to deal with the Hong Kong people, because it won’t work, and it will look very ugly in the eyes of the whole world.
AMY GOODMAN: Martin Lee, you were personally involved in drafting Hong Kong’s mini-constitution after the territory was handed off from Britain to China. When is it allowed for the Chinese military to intervene in Hong Kong? Apparently, they’re right there on the border.
MARTIN LEE: We drafted the Basic Law after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was reached in 1984. The Basic Law was finalized and passed into law in April 1990, but only took effect on the 1st of July, 1997. Now, there’s an article in the Basic Law which says that the security matters are to be handled by the Hong Kong government — that is, by our police force. But if the same — if the Hong Kong government requests for assistance from the People’s Liberation Army already stationed in Hong Kong, to assist the Hong Kong government to restore law and order, then the request can be made. And then Beijing can act on it. But the request must come from Hong Kong. So, there is provision for that.
But the troops are already here. Certainly, the actual position is far, far from justifying the deployment of these Chinese troops in Hong Kong, because the government can easily deal with the present situation by using reasonable force to contain the situation. They could, for instance, even impose curfews in certain hours of the day or night. This hasn’t happened. So, how can they justify the deployment of Chinese troops in Hong Kong to deal with law-and-order issues, which are, under the Basic Law, to be left with the Hong Kong government?
AMY GOODMAN: China, fearful of these protests, as they are in Tibet and in Xinjiang, can you talk about this larger picture and also why you think the protests haven’t spread or gained more sympathy on the mainland of China, especially among the young?
MARTIN LEE: Well, because they don’t know what’s happening in Hong Kong. And so far, the only coverage in mainland China are the the downside of these protests, how rotten the Hong Kong people are. They, in fact, liken the Hong Kong people to cockroaches, that China has been dealing, giving them so much advantages in Hong Kong, and yet these people are ungracious, causing trouble, asking for independence and destroying government property and so on and so on, without explaining the background as to why this happened to begin with. So, the people of China don’t understand the situation in Hong Kong at all. They are brainwashed every day by the Chinese press. And, I mean, you know how effective it is. And that is why they don’t even know what’s happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Martin, can you say one more thing? Can you comment on what’s happening? I mean, the Chinese government relating this to Tibetans rising up and also the Uyghurs of Xinjiang?
MARTIN LEE: A huge distinction. What we are asking for, everything we’re asking for, has been promised to us: democracy and high degree of autonomy. So, I say, “Democracy now.”
AMY GOODMAN: And let me ask a final question about President Trump. President Trump has offered to mediate a solution to the Hong Kong crisis, writing, “I know President Xi of China very well. He’s a great leader who very much has respect of his people. He’s also a good man in 'tough business.' I’ve ZERO doubt that if [President Xi] wants to quickly&humanely solve Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” he asked. If you could comment on this? You did come to the United States. You met with the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And your message to those who are saying, in mainland China and other places, even progressives in different places, that this is a kind of
MARTIN LEE: No, of course. I mean, they always blame the Americans, in particular, for anything of this kind, because these people have to justify themselves to the leader and explain why things are getting out of hand in Hong Kong, when they’re supposed to be ruling Hong Kong, which is not permissible under the Basic Law. Nevertheless, they are there to deal with Hong Kong matters. So, when they cannot contain such a situation, they obviously put the blame on the Americans, and they therefore say that the CIA has been paying these demonstrators, which is utter nonsense. That would cost them a lot of money, when 2 million people take to the streets. And so they always put the blame on the U.S., U.S.A.
And I agree with President Trump when he says President Xi can deal with it. Yes, surely, he can deal with it. If he now promises to go back to the promise of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy, as promised by Deng Xiaoping, then I’m sure Hong Kong will come back to our normal way of life right away. No doubt about it. And I don’t see that there’s any support at all for independence, if Hong Kong people can elect our chief executive and all members of the Legislature by democratic means.
AMY GOODMAN: Martin Lee, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Hong Kong politician, lawyer, founding chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, known as the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong. We thank you for joining us, and encourage people to go to Part 1 of our discussion at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.