Even measured against China’s other atrocities, a million Uyghurs in concentration camps, to begin with, what is a man?
And yet: Martin Lee is not just one man. He’s not just one of the most honest, kindest, kindest men I’ve ever known.
Martin Lee is the personification of the rule of law. He knows the law, he practices law, he worships the law.
The fact that Chinese leader Xi Jinping now wants to jail this eminent 82-year-old lawyer is a perfect illustration of the dictators’ contempt for the law. This shows, as it is supposed to show, that no one in Hong Kong is any longer immune to the arbitrary repression of the Chinese Communist Party.
And if the United States, Britain and other democracies cannot find a way to defend Lee, they will confirm, again as Xi wishes, that no atrocity will interfere with the status quo. Not the concentration camps, the suffocation of Tibet, the Swedish, Canadian and Australian hostage-taking, the suffocation of Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners and academics and entrepreneurs. Not the obscurations about the origins of covid-19.
And not the fierce and sudden stranglehold on freedom in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong matters for many reasons. The first is that China signed an international treaty when it took control of the former British colony in 1997, promising to keep its hands away from the domestic politics of city-states for 50 years. One country, two systems was the solemn oath.
Some believe that Deng Xiaoping, a reformer and China’s de facto rule until his death in 1997, hoped that some of Hong Kong’s little magic would rub off on its giant nation. What allowed Hong Kong to beat so far above its weight in the global economy was an unwavering dedication to the rule of law: the sanctity of contracts, freedom of speech and debate, unhindered universities, an incorruptible public service.
The Communists would never have risked importing all of this, but Deng and his successors allowed some movement in the direction of Hong Kong: private companies competing with state-owned companies; village-level voting experiences; some space for debate and discussion, provided that no one directly questions the Party rule.
Xi put an end to it all, replacing the group leadership with one man; imprison anyone who dares to criticize or question; re-impose party control over private affairs.
For him, Hong Kong, like Taiwan, is a particular affront, as they both prove that the Chinese are perfectly capable of governing themselves and engaging in civil debate without sinking into chaos. They prove that the rule of law is not a Western value but a prerequisite for human dignity.
No one understands this truth better than Lee.
I see him on trial now, and I think of all the times I’ve seen Martin put on his robe and wig, preparing to go to court to defend a hopeless case that no other lawyer would take, gave me said an old friend. . Each time, he convinced himself that he would win. He has this touching faith in righteousness.
Moderate in temper and ideology, for decades as established as anyone could be, Lee came to democratic activism because he came to see that autonomy was essential to preserve rule of law he cherished. For years he has been vilified by impatient young activists for urging them to move forward step by step, peacefully and within the law.
Now he finds himself on trial for organizing and participating in the massive pro-democracy protests of 2019. The accusation is ludicrous: With no social media presence, Lee is hardly an organizer. And if he is guilty of protesting, 1.7 million other Hong Kongers are too. They are guilty because Xi is now imposing Beijing’s rules on Hong Kong, with the help of an intractable administration, making peaceful protest a crime.
Lee is in the dock with Jimmy Lai, a fearless newspaper editor who won’t fold; Margaret Ng, 73, another longtime lawyer and lawyer for One Country, Two Systems; and several other well-known courage profiles. If Xis Thuggishness can claim them, it can come for anyone.
Will global democracies really participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics next year, as if none of this is happening? Will we decide that nations can break their word, ignore their treaty commitments, commit crimes against humanity without consequences?
Martin Lee sits in court because he would not give up on principle. Will we abandon it?
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