Democracy's Advocates Face China's Wrath in Hong Kong

Many fear being pushed to the sidelines, losing their public forum

Unemployment hardly exists here, but Fred Li already knows he will be out of a job at midnight, June 30. Mr. Li is a member of the Legislative Council (Legco), which will disband when Hong Kong becomes part of China.

Like his Democratic Party colleagues and many other small "d" democrats, he chose as a matter of principle not to join the unelected, China-appointed Provisional Legislature that replaces Legco. But Li, a former teacher, is a full-time politician, so on July 1 he not only forfeits his office but also the $7,000 per month paycheck that goes with it, his only source of income.

Hong Kong politicians without a profession or independent means are looking at a lean year ahead. Li says he plans to return to teaching, but he already has his eye on a comeback in 1998, when the first post-1997 Legco elections are expected. "I'll remain as active as possible in my constituency until then," he says.

These are difficult times for Hong Kong's democrats, a term that encompasses the Democratic Party, led by Martin Lee, and several other smaller groups and independents. In the two elections since 1991, they have trounced their opponents.

Now they face a rapidly changing and increasingly challenging political environment that will seriously test the progress made toward democracy in the past five years.

The immediate problem will be being out of office for at least one year. They will lose their public forum and no longer will be able to claim an allowance for staff to help with vital constituency work.

Democratic Party leader Mr. Lee recently left for an extensive tour of Canada and the United States, in part to raise funds from overseas Chinese communities. On April 9, he will be honored in Washington by the National Endowment for Democracy with the 1997 Democracy Award.

When new elections are held, they will be under a different set of rules. There will be 20 directly elected seats in the 60-seat body, as guaranteed in Hong Kong's post-1997 charter, the Basic Law. But there are many ways to configure the elections, and the Provisional Legislature, dominated by members appointed by China, can be counted on to choose one that will put the democrats at greatest disadvantage.

Liberals have thrived in so-called first-past-the-post elections, where the biggest single vote-getter wins. But the main political opposition, called the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, has called for a proportional-voting system, in which it would win more seats.

The concerns that popular democrats like Lee would be barred from public life after the hand-over, or even imprisoned, have receded. But the liberals may find they have been pushed to the margins. "All of the democrats together will end up getting 12 seats, if we're lucky," Lee says.

For the past five years, the democrats have sometimes been at odds with Gov. Chris Patten, but they have also prospered under an administration committed to expanding democracy. In fewer than 100 days, he will be replaced with a new chief executive who prefers to talk more about Chinese values than democracy.

There has been some tension between Tung Chee Hwa and Lee over the latter's speeches abroad. When Lee told European parliamentarians that Hong Kong's freedoms and rule of law were at risk, Mr. Tung publicly issued a challenge, accusing him of "bad-mouthing" Hong Kong.

The democrats have an important asset in the credibility and recognition they've earned abroad, which is one reason why many of their leading lights seem to be spending so much time outside the territory in these final months before the handover.

When liberal legislator Emily Lau visited the US recently, she was received by members of the National Security Staff and Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Helms refused to meet Allen Lee, a member of the provisional legislature, and still threatens to introduce a bill to prohibit provisional legislators from entering the US.

Some of the more radical democrats seem to be giving up on electoral politics. Ms. Lau says she's not sure if she will run again. As a prelude to what might come, she and some like-minded lawmakers staged a noisy protest when Tung was selected last December and were briefly detained.

Mainstream democrats prefer to use the courts. Lee expects to challenge the constitutionality of any laws passed by the provisional legislature before the handover. He considers the rival body to be illegal and its actions in violation of the 1984 agreement between Britain and China.

Legco members still have plenty of work to do. But unlike their 33 colleagues who joined the provisional legislature, which is meeting concurrently but separately, they only have one job to do - at least for the next three months.

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