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Martin Lee, Hong Kong's leading democracy activist, is the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest political party. He served from 1985 to 1989 as a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee, the body appointed by Beijing to draft Hong Kong's constitution after the end of British rule. Lee spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels at the Legislative Council offices in central Hong Kong on March 16.

NATHAN GARDELS: Last week, the National People's Congress in Beijing amended the Chinese constitution to include, for the first time, protection of human rights and private property. What is the significance of that?

MARTIN LEE: Until recently, the only human right recognized in China was the right to live. That is, a right not much different than for an animal. Now, Beijing has already signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, although it is yet to be ratified. In the meantime, it has, as you mentioned, written protection of human rights into the constitution.

These are clearly steps in the right direction. It was far behind Hong Kong on this score, but now it is beginning, slowly, to catch up.

GARDELS: How does this newfound respect for human rights square with the condemnation by some Beijing officials of recent demonstrations for democratic elections in Hong Kong as "unpatriotic"?

LEE: It is not easy to reconcile. When China resumed its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, we were a "special administrative district" with freedoms comparable to those enjoyed in the West along with the rule of law. The huge promise contained in the Joint Declaration between Britain and China at the time said this way of life would continue unchanged for another 50 years.

Our constitution, the Basic Law, also allows for the development of democracy gradually for the first 10 years after 1997 -- until 2007. Beyond that we would be allowed, if people so chose, to have direct democratic elections for the chief executive in 2007 and the entire legislature in 2008.

The prospect of real democracy in Hong Kong in a few years' time is extremely worrisome to Beijing -- although the new premier, Wen Jiabao, and the new president, Hu Jintao, have touted the development of democracy in China on their trips abroad. Of course, they talk about "democracy in a socialist context," but nonetheless focus on "the will of the people." This, too, is a step in the right direction. But there is no timetable for when democracy might come to mainland China.

Especially since our big demonstrations on July 1 last year that included about 1 million people, an overwhelming support for democracy has grown in Hong Kong. In fact, every opinion poll conducted over the last 10 years has shown that the people of Hong Kong -- on a 2 to 1 basis -- want democracy as soon as possible.

Beijing didn't expect this. China's leaders had been told by their allies in Hong Kong, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, or DAB (which I call Democracy According to Beijing), that there was nothing to worry about as long as they gave economic help to Hong Kong. Economic improvement, they said, would dampen people's enthusiasm for democratic progress.

Of course, this helped Hong Kong. But when the first district elections came after the July 1 demonstrations, Beijing's allies were crushed. Hong Kong's people, in essence, said, "Thank you very much, but we still want democracy."

So, Beijing is now in fear. It is afraid that in the next elections in Hong Kong in September, we and our allies could take the majority. If that happens, it fears, Hong Kong will be out of Beijing's control and on its way to democracy.

The Chinese are so panicky now, they have lost their senses. They don't even want to allow Hong Kong to begin discussions and consultations about moving to direct elections. And they have tried now to frighten our voters by calling them "unpatriotic," reminding them that Deng Xiaoping had said that the majority of people in the Hong Kong government should be "patriots."

In short, they are trying to change the goalposts. They thought that after 10 years the Hong Kong community would be so accustomed to the Beijing way that it would elect a majority of pro-Beijing politicians. Now they see that is not going to happen.

GARDELS: Are you a Chinese patriot?

LEE: Well, whom did Deng define as a patriot? He said any person who supports China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and the "one country, two systems policy"! That certainly makes me and all other democrats in Hong Kong patriots. We don't want independence -- we've made that clear. Not a single person wants that. We just want democracy, as promised, under the "one country, two systems" policy. That is all. We support the "one China policy" and don't support independence for either Taiwan or Tibet.

But they are trying to redefine what patriotism means. After visiting the United States last week to testify to the U.S. Senate about Hong Kong's future, I was called a traitor by the deputy minister of trade. He said, "When you go overseas and see a foreigner about Chinese affairs, isn't that traitorous?" By that definition, Premier Wen Jiabao is also a traitor because he went to Washington to secure President Bush's support of China's position on Taiwan.

GARDELS: Even though Iraq will already have had elections by then, a senior delegate to the National People's Congress said exactly that -- Hong Kong will not be ready by 2007 to have direct elections. Further, the Hong Kong governor's main policy advisor has said that elections are an issue to be decided now by the central government in Beijing, not the Hong Kong Legislative Council. How do you respond?

LEE: These are stupid comments. To say such a thing surrenders the "high degree of autonomy" Hong Kong has in order to play second fiddle to Beijing.

GARDELS: Are Beijing and its allies in the present Hong Kong government retreating from the "one country, two systems" promise?

LEE: I wouldn't say that yet. The encouraging thing is that the top two leaders in China -- Hu and Wen -- have not spoken out directly against us. It seems to me the hard line is coming from elsewhere. It is being pushed by Jiang Zemin (China's former president). There is an internal feud, it seems.

GARDELS: Perhaps the fear in Beijing is justified. If the Chinese people follow Hong Kong's example, too much democracy too soon might destabilize that huge country and its so-far-successful strategy that is lifting many millions of people out of poverty.

LEE: If Beijing puts it like that, it may be right. It is a better judge than I about China's internal situation. I would have sympathy if that is the case. But this is "one country, two systems." We are separate. And the Basic Laws allows that.

If it wants to set a much longer timetable for the arrival of democracy in China -- starting with the villages, then moving on to the towns and provinces and later the whole country -- then it should do that. But there is no reason we shouldn't go ahead.

(c) 2004, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 3/16/04)