HE was once the most popular politician in Hong Kong known by many as the ''father of democracy.'' He helped write the mini-Constitution that enshrined the city's prized freedoms that mainland China lacks.

For nearly four decades, he provoked Beijing by crusading for civil liberties, yet remained a respected part of Hong Kong's political elite.

But for Martin Lee, the 82-year old founder of Hong Kong's first pro-democracy party, the unlikely balance that has defined his career has recently begun to collapse.

The pro-democracy movement that he helped begin has increasingly distanced itself from his ideals, as a younger generation of activists has demanded more drastic action than he is willing to endorse.

After Mr. Lee recently proposed a compromise with Beijing on national security legislation, social media users assailed him as out of touch.

At the same time, Beijing has lost patience. Hong Kong's Beijing-backed police chief recently called him a bad influence on the city's young people, on the heels of monthslong demonization campaign by the Chinese state news media. In April, Mr. Lee was arrested and charged for his activism for the first time.

Mr. Lee, who has a broad grin, is unshaken by the threat to his legacy.

''I'm a public enemy from China's point of view. And the kids don't like me, either, because I am not agreeing with their objects,'' he said. But, he continued, popularity wasn't the goal : ''The goal is democracy for Hong Kong.''

Mr. Lee's trajectory, from quixotic campaigner to mainstream icon, undiverted despite repeated setbacks, is in many ways the story of the democracy movement itself. Now he has become a locus for one of the movement's key questions:

Whether as Beijing tightens its grip and Hong Kong protesters grow more desperate, any room remains for Mr. Lee's brand of hopeful pragmatism.

''His experience of getting arrested really marks a very important milestone in Hong Kong's downfall,'' said Victoria Hui, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame.

''When even the moderates are arrested, then what is left?.''

Mr. Lee was not considered moderate when he began campaigning for residents in Hong Kong to directly elect their top leaders in the 1980s. After the government offered limited elections in 1991 for a few legislative seats. Mr. Lee burned a printout of the proposal.

Even after he led his political party, the United Democrats, to a landslide victory in those elections, his fellow party members chastised him for demanding too much, too quickly, said Professor Hui, who worked for the party at the time.

''He wanted to have democracy as much as possible, and on those issues, there was just very little market,'' she recalled.

But if Mr. Lee's idealism was radical, his vision itself was hardly so. He is a strong defender of ''one country, two systems,'' the political formula established
when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997.

The World Students Society thanks author Vivian Wang.


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