Hong Kongers have been demonstrating in large numbers and almost every day since last June to protest against a draft law allowing extradition to China and to denounce Beijing's growing interference in Hong Kong affairs. Journalist Céline Galipeau spoke with Martin Lee, an over 80-year-old lawyer, former member of the Hong Kong Parliament and founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party. Here are excerpts from the interview in Hong Kong.
What is at stake in this new wave of protest and mobilization in Hong Kong?
We are at the most critical stage of all these years of demonstrations. We are really at the crossroads, and it goes or it breaks for Hong Kong. If we look at how Beijing has treated us so far, it bodes ill for the future. In the past, whenever there were big demonstrations, Beijing responded by tightening its control over Hong Kong. And what Beijing hates above all else is that all this turmoil attracts the attention of the whole world. I can well see the Chinese authorities say to foreign nations: "Mingle with your business; we will do the right thing to solve Hong Kong's problem. "
Hong Kong, a major financial center on the south coast of China, is a former British colony. It was surrendered to China in 1997, and the agreement signed at the time guarantees it a certain autonomy according to a model called "one country, two systems".
What is so bad about the extradition bill to China that some young people in Hong Kong are willing to die to prevent its adoption?
This bill is really bad. Hong Kong's judicial system meets universal standards and is recognized by all governments around the world. This is certainly not the case with China's judicial system. And so far, we have never extradited citizens to China for trial.
Today, Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, would like to allow the extradition of suspects to China, while arguing that the Chinese judicial system has improved. But this is not the case. We all know it. We see him on the news all the time. In China, suspects are forced to confess in front of television cameras. There is no fair trial in China at all. Again last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said he did not recognize the independence of the judiciary and that judges were there to strengthen the Communist Party's governance. So when the president himself says such a thing, how to trust their judicial system? Their courts will convict anyone if that is what the Party wants.
Finally, Carrie Lam said she was suspending the bill, but she was not going to withdraw it.
And it is for all that that the young people of Hong Kong are mobilized. They do not want to go to court in China. Nobody wants that. Such a bill would destroy our system, which allows fair and equitable trials. And if this bill is ever passed, even you, even visiting visitors here for a few days could be extradited to China on false charges. That's why it's so dangerous.
Any visitor could be sent to China?
That's what we fear if this law is passed. You think that if you come here you have nothing to fear and that Hong Kong will protect you. You have not committed any crime here or in China. You have never even committed a criminal act in your life. But if Beijing does not like the way you report the events here, for example, it could mount a case against you, arrest you and have you extradited. All they need is a statement from a witness who will say, falsely of course, that in the past you have committed a criminal act in China.
Apart from this bill, young people are also fighting to protect the Hong Kong identity, right?
They fight for our freedom, for our fundamental values and for democracy. I fought for democracy all my political life for 35 years. But I have always done it peacefully. I never used force. Today, these young people say they will change tactics and use force. A little. They say :
Continue your campaign peacefully, but we try something else.
They did it, and they succeeded! The draft law on extradition was adopted on June 12 if these young people had not blocked the day the passage to pro-Beijing legislators who wanted to enter the parliament. As a result, the session was adjourned and the Chief Executive suspended the bill. For that, the demonstrators resorted to the force. A little.
They managed to roll back the government, but that is not enough. They demand not only the suspension, but also the withdrawal of this bill.
What is China trying to do? Assimilate Hong Kong?
I think so. When Deng Xiaoping arrived with the concept of "one country, two systems" in the 1980s, he believed that Hong Kong would move China forward. He loved Hong Kong: a peaceful place, all freedoms and the rule of law. Its "One Country, Two Systems" formula gave Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, except in the areas of defense and foreign affairs.
But it is clear that Beijing is interfering more and more in the affairs of Hong Kong. Everyone realizes it here. That's without counting, every day, 150 Chinese come to settle here. A one-way ticket. One hundred and fifty Chinese per day, that's 60,000 a year. After 10 years, that's 600 000. And it continues.
Are you worried that Hong Kong will lose its identity?
I believe that Beijing intends to dilute the distinctiveness of Hong Kong, by attacking our core values, our freedoms, the rule of law, democracy, and so on.
Beijing wants Hong Kong to become another Chinese city. But not entirely; they want Hong Kong to continue to be an international city. But will that be possible if the draft law on extradition is adopted? We can not even guarantee the safety of visitors or overseas investors coming to Hong Kong. So, China wants butter and buttery money. It's totally unrealistic.
Young people are scared, and they want Hong Kong to stay as it is, and they want to protect our core values for future generations. They are ready to go to jail. If they are convicted for taking part in a riot, it can be up to 10 years of detention. They are even ready to die. And of course, the citizens of Hong Kong want to protect these young people. That is why it was possible to organize the huge demonstrations of the last weeks in such a short time.
Do you know a place in the world where the government is still in power if a quarter of the population is on the street protesting? Here, there are regular monster demonstrations, and not a single minister has resigned so far. The chief executive is still in office and continues to say no to the legitimate demands of the people.
How do you think this will end?
It all depends on one man, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. If he manages the tumult as usual, he will send the soldiers if necessary to suppress the demonstrations. He will put many people in prison.
But I hope that he will have the wisdom to turn away from this way of doing things and instead embrace Deng Xiaoping's politics. The latter wanted a high degree of autonomy for us, he trusted the citizens of Hong Kong and he allowed us to live in a democracy.
Interview by journalist Céline Galipeau