The Conviction of a Hero in Hong Kong | Opinion

From the dry facts alone, it is not always easy to feel the full meaning and weight of a terrible event going on somewhere in the world. But take one place—Hong Kong—and take one event—the conviction of the father of Hong Kong democracy, Martin Lee. For those who value human liberty, this one is worth knowing.

One must understand Mr. Lee as a person, and his importance to his fellow Hong Kongers, to see the horror of this event. Two moments of his life typify his strength of character.

By simple chance, I observed the first moment firsthand. I arrived in Hong Kong for my first visit to Asia in September 1982, only a couple of days after Margaret Thatcher had announced that Hong Kong would be turned over to the Chinese when certain leases were up in 1997. In reaction to this announcement, the entire city was decorated in posters calling for a bill of rights. When I asked where these calls came from, every answer I got included the name of Martin Lee. I asked to meet him, and two days after I first heard his name I was sitting in his office.

In one way Hong Kong is an unlikely place to give rise to such an informed movement to defend freedom. It had been lightly governed by the British for 150 years, and under their gentle hand it had flourished. There was plenty of civic involvement in Hong Kong by its people, even though the governor was provided by the British Crown. Property was protected. Law and order was maintained. Trade was free. Commerce was easy and thriving. People could come and go and meet anyone they pleased.

In a flash, a movement to guarantee the rights of the people of Hong Kong emerged. Margaret Thatcher had been presented with a Hobson's choice. The British held most of their territory in Hong Kong in perpetuity. But a large part was held by a lease that was going to expire in 1997. Thatcher did her best. She negotiated certain guarantees that the civil liberties of Hong Kongers would be protected. The people of Hong Kong knew too much to trust any promise from the Chinese government, so they demanded a bill of rights to guarantee that they would be protected. Now, 39 years later, they have been proven right.

Martin Lee Hong Kong
Former lawmaker and barrister Martin Lee leaves the West Kowloon Magistrates Courts following a hearing on April 1, 2021 in Hong Kong, China. Seven prominent democratic figures, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, former lawmaker and barrister Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, were convicted of unauthorized assembly in relation to a peaceful protest on Aug. 18 in 2019. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Martin Lee is a distinguished barrister—the kind of lawyer that argues in court. He is a warm person with a touch of formality. He speaks precisely and in a clear, logical order. He would make a great teacher. This ability to make simple yet dispositive arguments is the foundation of rhetorical prowess. He is a self-restrained person, and in his half century of civic engagement he has never advocated violence. I have been privileged to spend time with him on several occasions, including on the very night of the handover of Hong Kong. I hosted him in the United States on one of his early trips here as a representative of the Hong Kong democracy. On all these occasions he was the same force for reason and liberty.

Chinese officials have convicted Mr. Lee of "unauthorized assembly." As Mr. Lee will point out, there is no such conception under the principles and laws of freedom. Although one would not know it from America's pandemic response, people have a natural right to meet and speak with whomever and to say whatever they please. The government may restrict this right, but only for narrowly defined purposes, and only by lawful procedures that involve more than one branch of government. In China and in all despotisms, assembly is allowed only upon sufferance of the powerful.

We probably cannot help Mr. Lee today. The Chinese Communist Party is manifesting the arrogance of tyrants who think they have the world under control. Nonetheless, we should try. Also we must learn from his example. At a time when we often forget our own heroes, we can see in the figure of Mr. Lee something of the American revolutionaries who fought so hard and argued so well.

That brings me to the second moment that exhibits the character of Martin Lee. It came upon his arrest in 2020. He said to a journalist: "Finally I have become a defendant. I am very much relieved. For so many years, so many months, so many good youngsters were arrested and charged, while I was not arrested. I feel sorry about it."

Patrick Henry said no better.

Larry P. Arnn is president of Hillsdale College.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.