How One Bold Man Stands Up to China

Democracy-leader Martin Lee fights for Hong Kong's rights

AS Hong Kong moves toward July 1, 1997, when British colonialism ends and this frenetic Chinese entrepot rejoins the mainland, no one speaks more critically of the colony's two masters than Martin Lee.

Even though nearly two years remain until the Union Jack is lowered and China's flag rises over Hong Kong, Democratic Party leader Mr. Lee says the colony is already in Beijing's shadow.

This vocal critic says China's ruling Communists, uneasy over a succession battle to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, are already barking threats to muzzle the colony's fledgling democracy, of which he is now a leader.

And only a few years after enraging China with steps toward political reform, Britain is seeking to appease China and boost trade ties before the colony reverts to Chinese control, he charges.

''In Beijing, we have the end-of-dynasty syndrome, and in Hong Kong, we have the end-of-colony syndrome,'' says Lee, one of Hong Kong's best-known politicians. ''The people of Hong Kong don't know what to do. The great majority can't emigrate.''

Lee spearheads a colony legislature that has grown increasingly assertive, especially in the wake of the recent elections. This contrasts sharply to the past when British governors and their advisers ruled this cluster of islands, and residents had little to say in their government.

Basking in a resounding victory in a Sept. 17 poll, the prominent barrister and his allies could command a majority in the 60-member Legislature Council or ''Legco'' as it is known here. They stand as a challenge to Beijing, which is angry over political reforms that have emboldened local democrats. China has vowed to replace elected politicians with its own appointees when it takes over in two years.

''I don't think the Chinese leaders know what to do,'' says Lee, who recently was denied a visa to attend an Asian law conference in China. ''They had expected their people to do much better.

''If this election shows anything, it shows that the Hong Kong people want Legco to defend them,'' he says. ''That is the message loud and clear to both the Chinese and British governments.''

That rebuff to China has been applauded in the West and has won Lee international renown. In August, the lawyer was honored by the American Bar Association and awarded its human rights award.

But at home, the bookish, professorial lawyer, who is a devout Roman Catholic, dons only impeccably tailored suits, and drives a sleek Jaguar, is considered a curiosity at best by many. Solemn and awkward out on the political hustings, Lee is regarded as a threat among a population obsessed with commerce and worried about their soon-to-be Chinese rulers.

Political rivals charge that the lawyer, the son of a general in the Nationalist Army that was defeated in 1949 by the mainland Communists, needlessly taunts Beijing. He endangers a smooth transition to the rule of China, which has pledged to run Hong Kong under a ''one country, two systems'' principle, critics say. Elsie Tu, a former legislator favoring a more measured approach to Beijing, says that Lee ''is undermining the future of Hong Kong by being so confrontational.''

''You have a community that is very frightened,'' says a Western human rights activist. ''China probably won't put the Democratic Party members into prison. But it will take steps to isolate them from the political process.''

Others question Lee's motives, contending he is grandstanding to win international stature as a post-1997 safety net. Following last month's election, the South China Morning Post, which is owned by a pro-China businessman, ran a lengthy magazine article on the lawyer entitled, ''Martyr Lee,'' depicting him in a cartoon of a famous painting of St. Sebastian and questioning, ''Is he a saint?''

''Why would a barrister give up a large part of his practice to get into trouble with China? To do something for Hong Kong,'' says Lee, who says he has no intention of leaving the colony. Although he talks openly about the prospect of going to prison, he doubts if it would happen in the publicity glare following the turnover.

''When you have one country, two systems, you must have people like us who will defend our system against the much larger system, communism,'' he says. ''If we don't have these people, we won't have one country, two systems. We will have only one system - their system.''

Crucial to that, Lee says, is an independent judiciary, which is part of an accountable government that could check the power of a Beijing-appointed administrator. But this summer, Lee lost out in trying to block a deal between Britain and China establishing a new highest court only after 1997 and restricting the court's jurisdiction. By undermining the colony's existing legal system, the loophole gives Beijing legal say and poses a danger to businessmen and political opposition alike.

''If the [People's Liberation Army of China] were to arrest me in order to send me to Beijing to be tried as a counterrevolutionary, and if my wife were to go to court and ask for habeas corpus,'' he says, ''my freedom can't be protected.''

The issue has set Lee at odds with Chris Patten, Britain's last governor here. Three years ago, Mr. Patten angered China with his political-reform package, but is now seeking to smooth over the transition. Charging that the British administration ''sold Hong Kong down the river,'' the politician plans to reintroduce the issue in the colony legislature. That could place the British administration uncomfortably alongside China in opposing the political opposition.

''This is very bad because it opens up a hole in common law,'' Lee says. ''The British saw other countries sending delegations to Beijing and walking away with billions of dollars in deals.''

Last week, in an apparent move to placate public opinion, Governor Patten revived a proposal to allow the right of abode in Britain for 3.3 million Hong Kong citizens. In 1990, the British government said only 50,000 heads of Hong Kong families would be allowed.

Although many Hong Kong residents have obtained or bought other passports, only about 10 percent of the colony's 6 million people are believed to have the option of leaving if the transition to Chinese rule does not go smoothly.

Lee called the governor's move ''clearly the correct and moral thing to do,'' adding, ''I wish he would not put it on the back burner now and would pursue it more vigorously.''

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