Four local democrats attend US Senate hearing on Hong Kong democracy

Four Leading Hong Kong democrats discuss democracy with the Senate in Washington, a move which angers Beijing and risks political damage in the upcoming elections

Democratic legislators Martin Lee Chu-ming and James To Kun-sun, together with Human Rights Monitor Director Law Yuk-kai and the Confederation of Trade Unions legislator Lee Cheuk-yan are due to attend hearings on the subject of Hong Kong democracy with a sub-committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on 4 March.

The United States Senate felt obliged to act following an intensification of the vicious attacks against Hong Kong democrats and repeated questioning of their patriotism in a manner described by one Washington source as "reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution". "There would be no hearings if there hadn't been these nasty political attacks," said a media director of Human Rights Watch in New York and former aide to Lee. "The people who have been attacking Martin Lee and the democrats are the ones actually creating this problem."

Martin Lee said that he had been invited to "provide [his] perspective on democracy in Hong Kong" and that he felt it was necessary to speak from the heart and "tell others in the world the actual facts of [the situation in] Hong Kong" at this sensitive time. "I thought that anybody in the world who invites me wishes to understand more about the conditions in Hong Kong. I must go there if I'm free," Lee said.

However, he said that he would immediately cancel his trip and proceed to Beijing to give his opinion on constitutional reform in Hong Kong if he were invited by the central government. Beijing refuses to allow Lee and many other democrats to travel to the mainland. "Actually, my biggest ambition was to go Beijing and share with Beijing leaders our views on the democratic development of Hong Kong. Regretfully, we were unable to go to Beijing", he commented.

In an address before he left for Washington, Lee clarified his position. "No Hong Kong people had declared their support for the independence of Taiwan, Tibet or Hong Kong," he said. "From the beginning to this moment, the Democratic Party has believed there would only be one China. On the Taiwan issue, we hope there could be a peaceful unification and not resolving the issue by military force. We also disagree with the independence of Tibet. Nobody in Hong Kong is demanding independence," he added, vowing to "tell these messages clearly to those senators and media who were asking us in the US."

Lee stressed that the nature of the trip was to describe to the sub-committee the situation in Hong Kong, rather than to urge the United States to act. He said that the group planned to tell the senators of Hong Kong of people's demands for universal suffrage for the elections of the chief executive in 2007 and of the Legislative Council in 2008. However he maintained that "It's not our intention to tell [the subcommittee] what they should do to Hong Kong. It's never been our question to assume that they will be in the position of influencing the policy in Hong Kong. We'll just tell them how things really are - which is what they want to know."

Human Rights Monitor Director Law reiterated that the group is not going to the US to bad-mouth Hong Kong. "We are only going there to talk about the actual condition of Hong Kong, the things which the central government has been doing in the SAR, the ways which the SAR government has responded and the wishes of Hong Kong people," he said. He added that telling the international community about the situation in Hong Kong would help to protect freedom of speech in the SAR.

Lee acknowledged that the trip might undermine the Democrats' performance in the forthcoming Legislative Council elections. However he stressed that the city's democracy was far more important to him. Union legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, who decided to go to Washington only yesterday morning, also commented: "When state leaders go overseas, they also talk about democracy and human rights ... why can't we go out [of Hong Kong] and talk about it? Please don't think that if we go out to talk about it, the central government will not like it."

The reaction from China has been irate. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao angrily stressed that "Hong Kong affairs are the internal affairs of China. We strongly oppose any foreign intervention in that." Similarly, former Basic Law drafter Xiao Weiyun said: "The question of amending the two election methods in 2007 is an internal affair of the People's Republic of China. No foreign country has the right to intervene." He also added that the trip would serve only to complicate the debate in Hong Kong. "If there were any Hong Kong people attending the US Senate's meeting, it might complicate the issue [regarding changing the method of electing the chief executive and LegCo] in 2007," Xiao said.

In Hong Kong the trip was also denounced by pro-Beijing forces. Hopewell Holdings chairman Gordon Wu, who opposes universal suffrage, retorted that some people wanted Hong Kong to be America's "51st state", saying political reform was none of Washington's business.

The Chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong Ma Lik reiterated the claim that it was unwise for democrats to seek foreign powers' intervention in the internal affairs of Hong Kong. "I absolutely disagree with the practice of seeking foreigners' recognition and airing our grievances in front of them," he said.

A commentary in the Standard also warns of unhappy political consequences for the Democrats following this move. "Rather than helping Hong Kong find a way out of the current impasse with Beijing over reform and love of the motherland, the potent symbolism of Martin Lee appearing in Washington seems certain to stir mainland leaders to further fits of pique." The report proceeds to argue that whereas he has every right to speak his mind on the subject of democracy, his actions may polarise public opinion, and may damage his own political reputation and the climate for democratic reform in Hong Kong.