The End of Hong Kong’s Third Way

The Best China

Lee Yee (李怡, 1936-) is a veteran journalist and commentator who has has been writing about Hong Kong’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China for over forty years. His work has featured in Hong Kong: The Best China section of China Heritage from 1 July 2017. During the Hong Kong Uprising of 2019-2020 he has expressed his views, his concerns and anguish, in the regular column that he contributes to Apple Daily, a leading independent media outlet in the city founded by Jimmy Lai (Lai Chee-Ying 黎智英, 1948-), one of the fifteen pro-democracy advocates arrested on 18 April 2020.


The ‘Middle Way’ 中間路線, or the ‘Third Way’ 第三條道路, are terms with a long and tragic history in modern Chinese politics (the ‘Third Way’ has enjoyed a differently beclouded reputation in Western political discourse). Advocates of a middle way, that is a political and economic strategy aimed at finding a meaningful way forward between the Scylla-like monstrosity of hard-line communism and Charybdis whirly gig of laissez-faire capitalism, flourished during China’s Civil War era (1946-1949). After the Communist Party established its People’s Republic, Mao Zedong took great relish in the gradual persecution and eventual brutal elimination of liberal thinkers and academics of all persuasions (many of whom had lent their support to his cause). In particular, he identified and purged with great fanfare the remnant influence of the Third or Middle Way during a nationwide campaign launched in late 1954. (Ostensibly the campaign was about literary criticism but it quickly developed into an assault on Hu Shih (胡適, 1891-1962), the May Fourth-era champion of Chinese liberal thought, and his residual pro-Western supporters in academia, government and the media.)

Although the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1956 and the Anti-Rightist Putsch of 1957, which was stage-managed by none other than Deng Xiaoping, is often seen as a turning point in modern Chinese political and intellectual history, it was in fact the end point of a decades-long attack on liberal and Third-Way thinking. During the 1980s and 1990s, that old campaign was resumed involving both old and new protagonists struggling yet again over China’s political future. Ill-informed, or willfully ignorant observers of court politics in the People’s Republic would be taken aback, yet again, in 2013 when the latest round of anti-liberal, counter Third-Way thinking, enjoyed the poisonous attention of Xi Jinping, Wang Qishan and Wang Huning, among others.

The 2020 assault on Hong Kong is a continuation not only of a long-term struggle in the former British colony that dates back some four decades, but can also be seen as integral to the Communist Party’s one-hundred-year rejection of humanism, liberal values and the non-totalitarian path to modernity.


We are publishing this essay by Lee Yee both as part of our series Hong Kong: The Best China, as well as including it as a chapter in ‘Viral Alarm’, which takes as its focus the 2019-2020 coronavirus crisis. Lee Yee’s observations may also fruitfully be read in concert with recent work by Mainland writers such as Xu Zhangrun, Xu Zhiyong, Ren Zhiqiang and Tsering Woeser (links to their writings are provided below).

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
22 April 2020


Recommended Reading:

Source: Apple Daily, 21 April 2020


The End of the Third Way

Lee Yee

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


The most significant thing about the sweeping arrests carried out by the Hong Kong-Beijing authorities on 18 April was the fact the majority of those detained have been, by and large, advocates of ‘Constructive Democracy’; they were essentially supporters of ‘Greater China’. [Note: On 18 April 2020, fifteen high-profile democracy figures were arrested ‘on suspicion of organizing, publicizing or taking part in several unauthorized assemblies’ between August and October 2019 in the course of the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests]. Their number included some of the founders and leaders of the Democratic Party and the Hong Kong Alliance [in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China]. Over the years, they have directly participated in the deliberations of the governing Legislative Council and have called for the implementation of Article 45 of the ‘Hong Kong Basic Law’ that favours universal suffrage [Note: Article 45 stipulates that, eventually, the Chief Executive of the territory would be elected by universal suffrage on the basis of a field of candidates proposed by a broadly representative nominating committee. In reality, the post remains an appointment/ puppet of the Beijing government.]

[Note: Antony Dapiran recorded that the event was ‘one of the largest mass arrests of pan-democrat legislators and figureheads yet. The list of 15 people arrested was a roll call of the most senior pan-democrats and protest leaders, including father of Hong Kong democracy Martin Lee, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, and Jimmy Lai (again), among others.’

Antony Dapiran, ‘The Reckoning, 
In which the usual suspects are rounded up’, 20 April 2020]

Similarly, during previous pro-democracy protests this disparate group, taken as a whole, have advanced their cause by means of calls for peaceful protest; they had in the past opposed mass demonstrations; assiduously disassociated themselves from the taint of ‘Hong Kong independence’ and maintained a studied distance from localist activists. Moreover, they have been a voice of compromise when it comes to the role of the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong and Macau Liaison Office in regard to local elections; they have been critical of popular protests that targeted parallel traders or who agitate under the banner of ‘Reclaim Hong Kong, Defend The Local’. They have also supported such proposals as granting to new immigrants from the Mainland access to Hong Kong’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance after only one year of moving to the territory.

Supporters of Hong Kong localism have generally regarded the stance of the majority of those arrested on Sunday 18 April as being nothing less that ‘selling out Hong Kong’. Indeed, during the administrations of [the first Mainland-appointed Chief Executives] Tung Chee-hwa [1997-2005] and Donald Tsang [2005-2012] members of this group particularly attracted the attention of the Beijing-Chinese authorities in their efforts to get independent-minded members of the local elite to collaborate. Following the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012, however, and with the tenure of the new brand of chief executive — first Leung Chun-ying [2012-2017], followed by Carrie Lam [Cheng Yuet-ngor, 2017-] — all of that changed.


Many of the arrested people had not limited their partisanship to opposition to Hong Kong independence. Back in the year 2000, some even expressed agreement with a government proposal advanced by the then chief executive Donald Tsang to condemn formally ‘Taiwan independence’. Of their number, only Margaret Ng [Ng Ngoi-yee] took a principled stand and abstained from the vote on the grounds that such a resolution regarding the ‘Taiwan Issue’ had no place in the deliberations of the Legislative Council. 


As I have been saying for well over a decade, the only way Hong Kong can achieve democracy is for its citizens to snatch political power from the hands of the all-powerful Communist Party. For their part, the Chinese Communists are of the opinion that, regardless of any claim about being ‘patriotic’ or in support of the ‘Great Unity [of China]’ people like you are, in the final analysis, nothing less than agitators supporting Hong Kong independence. And, when push comes to shove, even those who have doggedly supported the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ governance framework, or who favour the avowed policy about ‘Hong Kong people being in charge of the administration of Hong Kong’ on the basis of strict adherence to the letter of the ‘Basic Law’ — they too will eventually be labelled as pro-Hong Kong ‘splittists’. I would therefore observe that, in reporting on the sweeping arrests of Sunday 18 April, the official Chinese media was entirely on message when it labelled those who were nabbed as ‘Hong Kong independence gang leaders’.


For Western countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, the mere existence of high-profile democratic activists like Martin Lee [Lee Chu-ming], Margaret Ng and Jimmy Lai [Lai Chee-Ying], founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy media outlet, has been proof positive that  the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ set-up [agreed by Beijing and signed into a law that stipulated that the arrangement would continue up to 2047] is still in operation. The tireless efforts of these individuals in advocating for democracy — despite of their endless frustrations and defeats — has also served to validate Western optimism. Stemming from that there has been ample confidence in the West that a whole range of activities, from investments to business ventures, dating from well before [the Beijing takeover of the territory in] 1997 would continue to be vouchsafed by the undertakings specified in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Now, the arrest on 18 April 2020 of prominent public figures like Lee, Ng and Lai was a brazen act signifying that Beijing has decided to abandon the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement. In fact, I’d go even further and say that, taking into account the Sino-US trade war, the response to the Wuhan Influenza crisis and this present round of repression in Hong Kong, the Chinese People’s Republic has effectively signaled its split with the West.


The response to the events of 18 April in Western political capitals was instant, broad-based and outraged. Even Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for the US presidential election [in November 2020], a politician consistently opposed to President Donald Trump’s trade war with China and a man who advocates continued pressure on Beijing in support of democracy and basic freedoms, spoke up and expressed support for Hong Kong. In declaring himself to be on the side of the Hong Kong people Biden also criticised Trump for having repeatedly remarked that Xi Jinping is his ‘friend’ and that he stands with China. Thus, it appears that one of the policy debates that will feature in the lead-up to the November presidential election will centre on who is tougher on China.


Beijing made a serious miscalculation if it launched this police action against these Hong Kong democrats out of the mistaken belief that the West was too preoccupied by the coronavirus pandemic to pay any attention to the former British territory. The reality is that many Western nations regard the devastation wrought by a virus originating in Wuhan on the Mainland and the brazen authoritarian repression of Hong Kong as two sides of the same coin.


For the international community, the detention of Martin Lee in particular carries symbolic weight. Ever since supporting the Sino-British Joint Declaration in the 1980s Lee became increasingly involved in the territory’s political life. Aware of his willingness, Beijing then coopted him into the Basic Law Drafting Committee [appointed in late 1985] and then he played a political role in a ‘functional constituency’ [set up to represent professional or special interest groups involved in the electoral process]. From there he went on to seek election as a member of the Legislative Council [in which he served in various capacities from 1985 to 2008]. Moreover, in 1994, he was the founding chairman of the Democratic Party. Famed as ‘The Father of Hong Kong Democracy’, Lee may rightfully claim a considerable international profile and a vast global network of contacts, one that includes many former and active Western politicians and heads of government. His arrest signifies in the most concrete way the end of the line for democracy in Hong Kong and the demise of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.


Another important figure swept up in this wave of arrests was Margaret Ng. Arguably, she has been fighting for an independent judiciary in Hong Kong even longer than Martin Lee. Her activities and advocacy have straddled the mass media, the legal world and practical politics itself. During the negotiations between London and Beijing [from 1979 to 1984], Ng published numerous commentaries and analyses of developments; she was a member of the Legislative Council for eighteen years during which time she brought to the task of interrogating the legislative documents that passed over her desk an incomparable eye for detail and dedicated seriousness of purpose. Her political memoir — On the Fulcrum — is a superlative account of her political career. For decades Margaret Ng has been nothing less than Hong Kong’s guardian angel of legal autonomy and judicial independence. She remains a tireless advocate worthy of the highest respect.


Since the evolution of a localist mentality in Hong Kong [from c. 2010], even though my views have been at variance with the majority of ‘patriotic democrats’ in the territory, I have nonetheless always respected their unswerving support for and advocacy of democracy. From the start of the Anti-Extradition Law Protests in June last year, most pro-localist young Hong Kongers laid aside their previously negative opinions regarding this group and participated enthusiastically in the non-violent mass demonstrations and the local council elections that unfolded. Recently, LIHKG [連登 or LIHKG 討論區, the online mobilisation network widely used by protesters] has even published an appeal to the international community calling for support of those detained on 18 April.

These days, Hong Kong people are very much of a mind when it comes to protecting the value of freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong. It is the same when it comes to the view of both authoritarianism here and totalitarianism in China itself. As the Communist authorities have directed the local authorities to arrest men and women such as these — remember, they have consistently been the most mild advocates of democratic norms in the territory — they have, in effect, wiped out what remained of a middle ground. Now the only choices open to Hong Kong people are: align yourself with a totalitarian regime or rise up to resist and oppose it. There simply is no Third Way.




Viral Alarm, a China Heritage Series