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AP Interview: Martin Lee sees end of the Hong Kong he knows

HONG KONG – The man nicknamed Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy” said that Beijing is trying to take control of the semi-autonomous city with an impending national security law, but that violent protest is not the answer.

“This is clearly a pretext for Beijing to assert comprehensive control over Hong Kong, as they said they would six years ago,” longtime activist and former lawmaker Martin Lee said in an interview on Friday.

The national security law, which could be approved in Beijing this weekend, is aimed at curbing secessionist, subversive, terrorist and foreign interference that Beijing says fueled the monthslong anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The law would be enacted by the central government, bypassing the city's legislature.

“The end of Hong Kong as we know it, as an international city, as a free port and with all our freedoms protected by our independent court — this could well disappear,” Lee said.

He said he hoped that Beijing will keep to its promise and abide by the so-called “one country, two systems” framework, where “Hong Kong people will rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy.”

A former British colony, Hong Kong was assured that it would be allowed to maintain its freedoms, many not found on the mainland, when it was handed over to China in 1997. Last year's protests were sparked by opposition to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent for trial on the mainland, something many saw as a violation of that commitment.

The 82-year-old Lee was arrested for the first time in April together with 14 other pro-democracy figures. They were charged with participating in and organizing several of last year's protests.

“It’s selective prosecution,” he said, calling the charges politically motivated. “But if they want to charge 15 of us over this series of demonstrations, then so be it.”

He said they had a strong defense and expressed confidence they would be acquitted.

Lee urged Hong Kongers to protest peacefully against the national security law, even after it is enacted. The protests last year were the most violent Hong Kong has seen since the handover to China.

“I hope there’s no violence in these public demonstrations because you cannot win. Once you use weapons, how can you defeat the Hong Kong policemen, who are so well-armed?” he asked.

The controversial national security law has drawn sharp rebuke from the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, with activists like Lee and others saying that it erodes the “one country, two systems” framework.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is deliberating the law during a three-day meeting that ends Saturday. It is not clear if it will approve the law at this session.

Yue Zhongming, a spokesperson for the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee, said Tuesday that the committee planned to speed up the formulation of the law.

Lee was part of the committee that helped draft the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, although he later resigned in protest over Beijing’s bloody crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

In 1990, he founded Hong Kong’s first pro-democracy party, and has been a champion of democracy and human rights for the past four decades.