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Los Angeles Times Interview

Martin Lee

On the Approaching Rule of China in Hong Kong

May 04, 1997|Nancy Yoshihara | Nancy Yoshihara is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed Martin C.M. Lee during his recent visit to Los Angeles

Martin C.M. Lee recalls wistfully how excited he was 13 years ago when he rushed to get a copy of the agreement returning Hong Kong to China in 1997. The chairman of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest and most popular party, sat at a little desk in a windowless copying room reading the joint declaration agreement for a one-China, two-systems policy. Lee later helped draft the 1990 Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong is to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. The United States and other countries endorsed the pact. The future looked bright.

Today, Lee is worried. China has breached the agreement in many ways. It has appointed a provisional legislature for Hong Kong. Beijing plans to restrict the rights of protest and assembly when it resumes sovereignty over the British colony in two months. Yet, China's actions have not raised a peep from the international community, much to Lee's dismay.

Lee has been traveling to Europe, Australia and the United States to express his concerns to officials, policymakers and business leaders. He met in April with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and later spoke with President Bill Clinton.

In an interview in Los Angeles before his recent visit to Washington, Lee said the ill-defined U.S. policy of constructive engagement sends confusing messages to China's leaders. He said the administration is "looking at China starry-eyed. You know, this huge China trade pie. I would only say this when they formulate a policy on China and when they decide on the bottom line, no matter how low, stick to it." He believes the failure of the United States and other countries to speak out for Hong Kong's freedoms tacitly condones China's breaches of the joint declaration.

Despite his criticisms of Beijing, Lee affectionately refers to China as "my country." When asked about the reference, he replied, "But of course it 'tis." Lee is an elected member of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife, Amelia. Their 15-year-old son attends school in Britain.


Question: Is the U.S. policy of constructive engagement with China at odds with Hong Kong's interests?

Answer: It looks like it, but it shouldn't be. Of course, it would be wrong for any government in the world to ignore the huge China market--1.2 billion people. But China trade and Hong Kong's human rights are not mutually exclusive. They are actually complementary. This is what I have been saying on all my trips overseas. . . . Because a lot of overseas business people, big-business people, have been exerting pressure on their governments not to raise [the matter of] Hong Kong when they have meetings with Chinese leaders.

They've taken the view, I believe wrongly, that if they were to mention Hong Kong, it would be just like mentioning Tibet [and] Taiwan, and it would prejudice their chances of getting more China trade. Hong Kong is unlike Tibet, Taiwan or China's human rights.

Not that I am saying that human rights in these places are unimportant because, to me, human rights of any person are important. But Hong Kong is distinguishable because . . . of the joint declaration. Surely, your government can only support the implementation of an international agreement and not the violation of it. In the joint declaration, we were promised an elected legislature. Now we've already been given an appointed one. What has your government done? Nothing.

But if Clinton were to mention Hong Kong freedoms and the rule of law to [Chinese President]Jiang Zemin when they meet [this fall], what can Jiang say? He will try to say, "Look, please, this is our internal affair." At which point, Clinton could say, "Is it really? Didn't your government ask our government to support your joint declaration in 1984? And we did, and we still do. How can you, therefore, break that agreement?"

The other point is it must be in the inherent interest of every government to see to it that China honors all international agreements. Who knows--next China may be breaking one with the U.S.A.

Q: If you have an opportunity to construct a U.S. basket of issues for China whereby human rights and trade are complementary, how would you do that?

A: People doing business in China need Hong Kong to remain free. If you look at it from a larger perspective, people say China has improved a lot economically--which is true--and, therefore, China has to be more democratic, and it will come naturally because you have a larger middle class and they want to have more say in the way government is run.

I'm not saying they are wrong, but what has it got to do with Hong Kong losing our freedom? It is not even logical. The fact that China is progressing economically--why then should we lose our freedoms? If we can continue to be free and have the rule of law and partial democracy, we will be a very good model for China.

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