The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If it will put this man in jail, China will stop at nothing

Pro-democracy barrister Martin Lee arrives for court in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Vincent Yu/AP)

The news is expected but still comes as a shock: Martin Lee on trial.

It’s just one paragraph, at the bottom of a page in The Post’s world news section, and understandably so. How can one elderly gentleman’s persecution, halfway around the world, compete for attention with the covid-19 pandemic, power outages in Texas and other pressing news?

Even measured against China’s other atrocities — a million Uighurs in concentration camps, for starters — what is one man?

And yet: Martin Lee is not merely one man. He is not merely one of the most decent, principled, gracious men I have ever known.

Martin Lee is the personification of the rule of law. He knows the law, he practices law, he reveres the law.

That Chinese leader Xi Jinping now wants to put this distinguished 82-year-old barrister in prison perfectly illustrates the dictator’s contempt for the law. It shows, as it is meant to show, that no one in Hong Kong is safe any longer from the arbitrary repression of the Chinese Communist Party.

And if the United States and Britain and other democracies cannot find a way to stand up for Lee, they will confirm, again as Xi intends, that no atrocity will interfere with business as usual. Not the concentration camps, the suffocation of Tibet, the seizing of Swedish, Canadian and Australian hostages, the stifling of Catholics and Falun Gong practitioners and academics and entrepreneurs. Not the obfuscations about the origins of covid-19.

And not the ferocious, sudden strangulation of freedom in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong matters for many reasons. One is that China signed an international treaty, when it took control of the former British colony in 1997, promising to keep its hands off the city-state’s internal politics for 50 years. “One country, two systems” was the solemn pledge.

Some people believe that Deng Xiaoping, a reformer and China’s de facto ruler until his death in 1997, hoped that some of tiny Hong Kong’s magic would rub off on his giant nation. What allowed Hong Kong to punch so far above its weight in the world economy was an unquestioning devotion to the rule of law: the sacredness of contracts, free expression and debate, unfettered universities, an incorruptible civil service.

The Communists would never have risked importing all of that, but Deng and his successors allowed some movement in the Hong Kong direction: private businesses competing with state-owned firms; experiments in voting at the village level; a bit of space for debate and discussion, as long as no one directly challenged party rule.

Xi shut all that down, replacing group leadership with one-man rule; imprisoning anyone who dared criticize or question; reimposing party control over private business.

For him, Hong Kong, like Taiwan, is a particular affront, because they both prove that Chinese people are perfectly capable of governing themselves and engaging in civil debate without collapsing 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 Martin Lee.

“I see him on trial now, and I think of all the times I saw Martin putting on his robe and his wig, preparing to go to court to defend some no-hope case that no other barrister would take on,” a longtime friend told me. “Each time he convinced himself he would win. He has this touching faith in justice.”

Moderate in temperament and ideology, for decades as establishment as anyone could be, Lee embraced democracy activism as he came to see that self-rule was essential to preserve the rule of law he cherished. But he was hardly a firebrand; impatient younger activists would deride him for urging them to move step by step, peacefully — within the law.

Now, he finds himself on trial for organizing and participating in the massive pro-democracy protests of 2019. The charge is ludicrous: With no presence on social media, Lee is hardly an organizer. And if he is guilty of protesting, so are 1.7 million other Hong Kongers. They are guilty because Xi is imposing Beijing rules on Hong Kong, with the help of a quisling administration, rendering peaceful protest a crime.

Lee is in the dock with Jimmy Lai, a fearless newspaper publisher who will not bend; Margaret Ng, 73, another barrister and longtime advocate for “one country, two systems”; and several other well-known profiles in courage. If Xi’s thuggishness can claim them, it can come for anyone.

Will the world’s democracies really take part in the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year, as though none of this is happening? Will we decide that nations can break their word, ignore their treaty commitments, commit crimes against humanity — with no consequences?

Martin Lee sits in court because he would not abandon principle. Will we abandon him?

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Read more:

Nathan Law: The world must do more to fight China’s crackdown in Hong Kong

The Post’s View: The U.S. and E.U. must respond forcefully to China’s destruction of liberty in Hong Kong

Natan Sharansky: Why Jimmy Lai and Hong Kong’s democracy advocates need Biden’s public support right now

Martin C.M. Lee: I was arrested in Hong Kong. It’s part of China’s larger plan.

The Post’s View: The Xi regime is taking aim at democracy in Hong Kong, using covid-19 as a cover