Last stand of the awkward squad

The winner of Hong Kong's last colonial election has been labelled a subversive by Peking. But he plans to stick it out

MARTIN LEE, the leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, which recently triumphed in the legislative elections, relates that he came home from a television appearance in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre to find Joey, his eight-year-old son, sobbing in his bed.

"You're not going to give me a birthday present in 1997," said Joey. His father asked why not. "Because you'll be in jail." Joey had been watching his father on television pointing out the grave consequences of the shootings. This stance was supported by record numbers of viewers phoning in to register a vote of no confidence in Hong Kong's future after the 1997 Chinese takeover.

Joey Lee has every reason to worry about his father remaining at liberty after 1997. After Tiananmen Square, Martin Lee was in the forefront of Hong Kong protest demonstrations and was quickly labelled a "subversive" by the Chinese government. This charge is not handed out lightly. In China those accused of subversion face the death penalty.

In the years since 1989 Mr Lee has, if anything, become more disliked by Chinese officials. His latest offence is to have ledhis party to an election victory on a clear mandate, which he describes as providing legislators with the "backbone to protect Hong Kong from Beijing".

Because Peking dislikes Mr Lee and others like him, it is threatening to dissolve the legislature as soon as it takes over.

Chinese officials also refuse to say whether Mr Lee would be allowed to serve even if elected under a Chinese-devised system. Not only could China ban Mr Lee from any Chinese-constituted legislature, it could, he believes, kill off his practice as a barrister. It would not take much for the word to go round that China did not approve of solicitors briefing Mr Lee, who happens to be one of Hong Kong's highest-paid lawyers and a QC.

It is even possible that Mr Lee will become a political prisoner. "I think it's unlikely," he says, but in the same breath points out: "If you look at this part of the world, in what country do you not find political prisoners?"

Yet Mr Lee refuses to let concerns about what may happen influence what he is doing. Indeed, he is remarkably optimistic about the future, given the rash of indications which suggest there will be no place for his ilk in the new order.

"If you assume the worst," he says, "nothing will happen; you might just as well get out of here. Surely that's not the way to do things?"

He refuses to peer into the abyss, almost as if to do so would suggest a type of defeatism which he refuses to contemplate. "It's far to early to gaze into the future," he says. "I don't think even the Chinese leadership know what they're going to do in 1997."

Some of his critics have accused Mr Lee of being a martyr. The blunt fact is that he is a paid-up member of the awkward squad, a trait he may have inherited from his father, who was a general in Chiang Kai-shek's anti-communist Kuomintang army (KMT). However, when the communists were victorious in 1949, his father refused to join the KMT in exile in Taiwan. He believed the party he had served was riddled with corruption.

Instead he took his family, including Martin Lee, out of China on the last flight to leave Canton for Hong Kong. Once settled in the British colony, he was visited each year by an emissary from Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier and a great survivor of Chinese politics, who had known the elder Mr Lee from their days as students in France.

The Lee family were perpetually on the move, attempting to avoid visits from Zhou's emissary, but he always found them and repeated the offer for Mr Lee to return and serve the motherland. Adamantly anti-communist, he refused to go. Equally, he refused to visit Taiwan, where the island's government frequently offered him large sums in back salary if he would only pay a visit.

His son is also stubborn, although he talks a lot about compromise these days. Yet China has given no indication that it is willing to accept conciliatory overtures from Mr Lee and his colleagues. During the election, his constituency opponent taunted him with the fact that he could not put one foot over the Lo Wu border crossing into China, a view borne out by China's recent veto of an invitation for him to address a regional law conference in Peking.

Martin Lee knows all the dangers, but insists he will not leave Hong Kong. "I am not going to be threatened by China into submission," he says. Nor will he leave and become a dissident in exile. "To be effective I've got to be here," he insists, pointing to the dismal example of Chinese dissidents living overseas who have little impact back home.

He is also aware that it would be unwise to count on mass community support if he were to be persecuted for his beliefs under Chinese rule. Whatever people do will be suppressed, so it can only mean more will be sacrificed, he says.

On his bookshelf is a copy of the memoirs of the Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. "I'll read it when things get tough," he says. It was given to him by the lawyer who first urged him to get involved in politics - a move which has taken Martin Lee a long way from the well-paid world of the Supreme Court to pound the streets in search of votes and earn a place at the top of Peking's blacklist.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future