“I have been motivated by the desire to have a say over my destiny”

“If it will put this man in jail, China will stop at nothing" was the headline of a commentary in the Washington Post in March. It referred to Martin Lee, the founder of the largest pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, who is considered the "father of democracy" in his home country. Lee had to stand trial as a co-organizer of a peaceful 2019 protest march. The court found him guilty but suspended his sentence for 24 months. Still, the case horrified Hong Kong's remaining liberal forces. Emily Lau, former Democratic Party MP, is one of them.

Why are these harsh sentences coming now, two years after the nationwide protests for more democracy? I think this is a signal to Hong Kongers to stop coming to such protests. While Beijing may not have given direct orders, there is an assumption that the leadership in Beijing wants to see a crackdown on protesters by the courts in Hong Kong. As a result, sentences that are even more drastic may soon be handed down. If you talk to young Hong Kong people, they say that there is no independent judiciary here anymore and that the judges judge unfairly. I wouldn't go that far, but of course many people here, not just the judges, are under immense pressure.

By Tanis Werasakwong for this year’s HUMAN RIGHTS IN ASEAN - The Cartoonists Perspective Exhibition

As a well-known politician, are you worried about your own safety? Not really, but that does not mean I will not be arrested or charged. That can happen to anyone, there is no clear definition of what is allowed and what is not. The fear of crossing the "red line" is widespread. But there is a Chinese saying: "We all die someday, so why is it such a big deal?" Everyone wants to live a life worth living, and you fight for the things you believe in. But you may have to pay a very high price for it. We Hong Kong people are not alone in that, if you look around the world. People are dying as we speak.

Do you think there will be big protests in Hong Kong again sometime in the future? I hope so, and I will continue to fight for it. However, there are people who are much more pessimistic about that. They say that the police will never again tolerate such protest marches in Hong Kong. Because they are afraid that thousands of people will join them again. And I think that would be the case. If we ever have the chance to go out on the streets again, I hope it will be peaceful.

Last year, the so-called Security Law was put in place in Hong Kong, which restricts many freedoms. What has changed for liberal forces since then? People are afraid of being arrested and that they will be put in jail for many years. That is why many have already left the country, and quite a few more will follow them. Others are censoring themselves to avoid being caught in the crosshairs. Journalists are under particular pressure, as are universities, which are considered hotbeds of the protest movement. Politicians who now want to prove their "patriotism" are advocating, for example, video surveillance of seminars to ensure that the "right" content is taught.

Experts now consider the principle of "one country, two systems" to be dead in the water. What do you think? I think it is going downhill very quickly, even if there are still clear differences between the mainland and Hong Kong. Do you know what I asked Margaret Thatcher back in 1984 when I was still a journalist? Thatcher had just signed the handover of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to China, with the leadership in Beijing committed to the principle of "one country, two systems" for 210 years. At a press conference on the subject, I asked Thatcher: "You have signed an agreement under which more than five million people will be placed in the hands of a communist dictatorship. Is that morally justifiable, or is it rather true that in international politics the highest form of morality is that which serves national interests?" Of course, she was prepared for such a question. "What do you mean?" she replied, "Britain has done the best for you. Everyone in Hong Kong is very happy about that; you must be the only exception." Sole exception, meaning "a madwoman." That is what Margaret Thatcher thought of me at the time.

Why did you become a politician and pro-democracy human rights activist? I became a politician and political activist because I wanted to represent the people of Hong Kong to fight for democratic government, so that people can have a say in important policies, which affect their lives. I believed people must be pro-active and try to influence the policy making process.

What motivates you personally to work for democratic change and for free and independent elections? I have been motivated by the desire to have a say over my destiny and reluctance to allow big governments to walk all over me. Free and fair elections are a way for people to choose their representatives to serve in the law making body, hence I decided to stand for election.

What important changes are you striving for? For whom are you fighting for? I am working hard to get the Chinese government to honour the promises they made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which they pledged the Hong Kong people can continue to enjoy their free lifestyle, human rights and the rule of law, and that they can enjoy these freedoms for 210 years until 2047 under Beijing's policy of "One country, two systems." The Chinese government has not kept this promise, and the Hong Kong people are losing their freedom and personal safety and many people have been arrested and put into prison. I am fighting for the Hong Kong people to get the Chinese government to keep their promise.

Human rights defenders are not a distinct professional group, they are distinguished by their actions. What are your most important activities in defending human rights? My important activities in defending human rights include my 221 years work in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's lawmaking body, when I repeatedly pointed out the people's wishes and aspiration. I attended countless hearings of various United Nations human rights treaty bodies when they held hearings on Hong Kong as a member of Hong Kong non-government organisation delegations, reflecting our concerns and recommendations to the UN experts. I also gave interviews to international media to help them understand the concerns of the Hong Kong people.

Human rights defenders like you are considered to be the eyes and ears of the international community to the human rights situation in their society. To what extent does this description apply to you? I play an active role in keeping the international community informed of what is happening in Hong Kong by giving interviews and taking part in forums and seminars and meeting with foreign visitors.


Emily Lau is a well-known politician and former Member of Parliament for the Democratic Party in Hong Kong who has been a vocal and leading advocate for human rights and press freedom for decades.