As Occupy protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong this week, the territory’s “Father of Democracy” invoked the memory of late Chinese leader and iconic reformer Deng Xiaoping — who ordered the 1989 crackdown on Beijing’s student-led democracy protests — not as a cautionary tale, but as a possible solution for Beijing amid a dearth of options to ease tensions in Hong Kong.
Martin Lee Chun-ming, who founded Hong Kong’s pro-Occupy Democratic Party and has been banned from mainland China over his long-time push for Hong Kong democracy — told Al Jazeera that Deng “wanted to keep our way of life unchanged” in the former British colony.
Deng, who devised the “One Country, Two Systems” rule that now governs Hong Kong, famously offered the territory 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” in exchange for the British handing it over to China in 1997. Less than two decades later, Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to many to be breaking Deng’s promise with a ruling that Beijing will essentially pre-select candidates for Hong Kong’s next election in 2017.
“I have a feeling that Deng Xiaoping was looking at Hong Kong, and was happy with what he saw there: Chinese people prospering with democracy and human rights,” Lee said.
Indeed, Deng suffered greatly under the rounds of purges the Chinese Communist Party saw during the Cultural Revolution. After his return to power, in 1979, Deng opened to international investment several Special Economic Zones in the mainland. The initiative attracted significant investment from Hong Kong, which was then under British control.
When Beijing and London collaborated in the 1980s to draft Hong Kong’s constitution, referred to as the territory’s Basic Law, “[Deng] said if 50 years prove not enough, you can have another 50,” Lee said.
Deng wanted Hong Kong to retain a higher degree of electoral freedom and democracy, not so that it would flourish alone, but so that it would serve as an example and ultimately a goal for the rest of China, Lee explained.
“Deng Xiaoping wanted Hong Kong to lead China forward toward the capitalistic path,” Lee said. “He wanted to let Hong Kong have everything we have so that China could catch up with us.”
“If that wasn’t enough, China would take another 50 years,” he said. “I want the new leader Xi Jinping to go back to that plan.”
It is not uncommon for Chinese rights activists on the mainland to invoke images dear to the Chinese Communist Party — figureheads, the constitution and mass movements — in a bid to ease concerns in Beijing that the administration’s absolute rule is in question. Hong Kong political analysts said Lee may be making a similar attempt.
“Hong Kong people fear losing the last defense of their long-cherished civil liberties,” said Stan Wong Hok-wui, a government professor at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. “Under this context, I believe Martin Lee wants to remind Beijing of its own promise — or at least the promise made by one of its most important leaders.”
Still, it may seem strange to some that amid a student-led movement, Lee would tout the leader who gave the go-ahead on a crackdown that brutally crushed the mainland’s foremost bid for democracy.
“I condemned [the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown] then, and still think it’s wrong,” said Lee, chairman of the Democratic Party at the time.
Lee believes that raising Deng’s legacy is more appropriate to Hong Kong now that Beijing is not under any apparent danger of buckling under the weight of a fomenting democracy movement.
During the Tiananmen massacre, Lee said, Deng “was afraid that [the protests] would lead to a breakup of the party,” referring to officials at the time who were split between their support for democracy protesters and the movement’s opponents.
“The Party is safe now, and Xi Jinping is consolidating his position. China is the No. 2 world economy.”
University of Hong Kong sociologist Beatrice Lam Oi-yeung said Lee’s message was received as intended by Hong Kong’s demonstrators.
Lam said it was clear that Lee was saying not “that he endorses or consents to Deng’s decision to order the crackdown in Tiananmen Square,” but rather that “we should adhere to the visions of Deng, as laid down in his model [of] One Country, Two Systems.”
The effects, Lee said, not only stand to benefit Hong Kongers, but could advance what he believes was Deng’s dream for mainland China’s social and economic development.