Anson Chan, left, who once was Hong Kong’s second-highest official during British rule, is still influential and urges Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces to be pragmatic in dealing with Beijing. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

— She is often called the “Iron Lady” of Hong Kong.

Anson Chan earned respect serving as Hong Kong’s second-highest official when the British were in charge. And when the colony was handed back to China in 1997, Beijing enlisted Chan to help with that transition.

While she no longer holds any official government position, Chan, 74, remains one of the most influential political figures in Hong Kong and has reemerged in the spotlight amid a growing fight by Hong Kongers for democratic rights.

At the heart of the fight is China’s promise during the 1997 handover that Hong Kong would be allowed a level of autonomy. Many in Hong Kong believe China has broken that commitment — especially when it comes to media freedoms and the process of choosing a chief executive, which is currently done by a committee tightly controlled by Beijing.

Amid the growing polarization, Chan has staked out a centrist position, supporting pro-democracy activists but pushing them to take a measured, practical approach to negotiating with China.

And she has used her profile to drum up international support for the Hong Kongers’ campaign for democracy. Her recent visits to Britain and to Washington — where she saw Vice President Joe Biden, members of Congress and the State Department — secured statements of support even as they drew angry retorts from Beijing.

Chan’s efforts reflect her approach to seemingly in­trac­table problems: Identify the best compromise deal possible, then push on every lever possible to achieve that goal.

In a recent interview, Chan talked to The Washington Post about her appeals for international support, her assessment of Hong Kong’s fight for democratic rights and her vision for the territory’s future. Here are condensed excerpts from that conversation.

How has Hong Kong’s future turned out differently from what you imagined in 1997 in helping with the handover?

“Of course, all of us had a bit of apprehension because we didn’t know what actually would happen after the handover. I personally put in a great deal of effort and time to sell the joint declaration, to secure international support and to tell Hong Kong people, ‘All will be well because we have all these promises.’

“I never in my wildest dream predicted 17 years after the handover that Hong Kong would be in this state. Nor did I foresee — and this is particularly disappointing — that all three parties to the joint declaration and the Basic Law [Hong Kong’s equivalent of a constitution] — Beijing, Britain, Hong Kong’s government — would all choose to walk away from their promises to the people of Hong Kong.”

Why have you focused in your proposals on a compromise that gives people in Hong Kong more say in the nominating process for the chief executive, rather than simply “one person, one vote,” as others have proposed?

“Our group, Hong Kong 2020, has listened to all the noise that has been made, particularly by the pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong and by Beijing officials, and by the liaison office. One message is totally clear, they will not accept civil nomination [allowing voters themselves to nominate candidates for chief executive], because they claim this is a breach of the Basic Law.

“So whilst we dispute this, we say, ‘Let’s try and see whether we can’t broker a compromise solution.’ So we spent one year checking with the different aspects of the community, listening to their views, and we arrived at a set of proposals that are fully compliant with the Basic Law, with no civil nominations but a chance to broaden the representativeness of the nominating committee. Because this is what the Basic Law prescribes.

“But what does the government do? The government keeps telling us that there’s room for negotiation, let’s sit down and seriously talk. But every single compromise proposal — and it’s not just ours, there are several others — one after another, they have been shot down by the government. So where is the sincerity? Where is the commitment towards actually trying to broker a compromise?

“We all know the government is waiting for instructions from Beijing, which are expected sometime in August.”

Why should the international community care what happens in Hong Kong?

“The international community takes an interest in Hong Kong, if for nothing else than their own self-interest. Because they have investments here, they have nationals living here, they have a whole raft of bilateral agreements with Hong Kong, ranging from cooperation in law enforcement, preventing human trafficking, narcotics, protection of intellectual properties. All these have been concluded on the basis that there is a very distinct system in Hong Kong totally different from anything prevailing in mainland China.

“If the two systems go, surely Hong Kong will no longer be in [a] position to honor our treaty obligations.”

How do you see your role in Hong Kong these days? How can you best use that to the advantage of Hong Kong?

“I’ve never been interested in particularly carving out a role for myself. But the reason why I decided to adopt a higher profile starting in 2006 is because I saw things deteriorating very rapidly, both in terms of the government dragging its feet on democratic reforms, but even more importantly on the whole quality of governance.

“One of the things we prided ourselves on was the fact that Hong Kong’s civil servants were a genuine meritocracy. You didn’t have to resort to political patronage. But that’s what has happened ever since [former Chief Executive] C.H. Tung introduced the political appointment system in 2002 — which by the way is the reason why I decided to retire early, because I felt that that system was thoroughly, fundamentally flawed.

“Because the chief executive is not popularly elected, to concentrate the power to appoint the top posts within the Hong Kong government in one pair of hands, without having checks and balance, is asking for trouble.”

If the opportunity ever emerged, would you ever run for chief executive yourself?

“I’m a pragmatist above anything else. There are two reasons [I wouldn’t run]: One, I would not be acceptable to China; secondly, this job needs a younger person. I’m already 74.

“I’ll continue to do what I can to encourage people to speak up, because it’s very important. I cannot guarantee that even if we speak up and express our concerns, that we will necessarily succeed. But if we remain silent and do nothing, we definitely will lose.”

Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.