Hong Kong's quiet hero stands his ground

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It is hard to envisage Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy leader, standing on the barricades directing street protests. But the quietly spoken and sombrely dressed barrister believes that the streets may well be the only place where democrats can express their views after the Chinese takeover on 1 July.

Mr Lee is seen as public enemy number one by China's supporters in the colony, who are infuriated by the international attention he receives. Last month he was received by President Bill Clinton at the White House and Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister, in Ottawa, while in Hong Kong he is not even invited for a warm orange juice at the China National Day reception - an event which even the Governor, Chris Patten, the "criminal through the ages", is asked to attend.

Interviewed in his barrister's chambers, surrounded by shelves of bulky legal volumes, the usually upbeat Mr Lee finds it hard to be optimistic.

"We will be going through a difficult stage," he says, shaking his head. He lists the problems. First, the Democrats will be kicked out of the legislature. Secondly, they will lose their main source of funding because his Democratic Party is heavily dependent on the salaries and allowances of its legislators to keep it afloat. Thirdly, they will become non-persons. "I don't expect many local papers will cover us; those who do will be writing deliberately nasty articles about us."

Yet he leads Hong Kong's biggest political party, which secured 65 per cent of the popular vote at the last Legislative Council elections. Mr Lee is also better known on the international stage than Tung Chee-hwa, who will lead the first post-colonial government of the territory.

Both Lu Ping, the most senior Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, and Mr Tung have recently said that they will not allow Mr Lee to become "a martyr". He is nonplussed by this pledge. "I'm interested to understand what they mean by that," he says. "First, I would have to die, and second I would have to do so in a just cause." Mr Lee is a practising Catholic and knows something about martyrdom. "I think it's part of a move to marginalise me because they can't argue with me. They're trying to write me off as a martyr. It's very cheap and very unfair."

In fact, Mr Lee sees many of the incoming government's actions heading in the direction of not being fair. He reckons that the new regime is trying to rig the election system so that the Democrats' 65 per cent share of the vote will not translate itself into anything more than 25 per cent of the seats in the legislature. "They will make sure the laws will not give Hong Kong a legislature which represents the share of the vote of the majority party," he claims. He foresees a legislature which is "very boring. The only difference between the parties will be how low they kowtow to Peking".

Could not the Democrats be a little more accommodating towards China? "I think we've been extremely conciliatory," he says. He points out that Democrats have no argument with the notion that Hong Kong should return to Chinese sovereignty, "we've never asked for independence, nor are we trying to start a revolution, we've even defended the renewal of China's most favoured trading nation status [in the United States].

"What more we can we do?" he asks, knowing full well that what is required is that the Democrats renounce their views on representative government and civil-liberties legislation. Mr Lee, of course, will have none of that. "If we cave in on that we might as well pack up and go home," he says.

"My fear," he says, "is that we're going down the Singapore route," by which he means authoritarian government with the semblance of democratic institutions still in place. "Mr Tung adores Lee Kuan Yew," he notes, referring to the strongman who created the Singaporean system.

He is vague about what the Democrats will do to combat the situation he envisages. Yet Mr Lee remains confident that his party will remain together; he says that the pressure is bringing them even closer together.

His strategy, such as it is, seems to be simply to remain in the game, as the conscience of the new regime. "I think the whole world's going in this direction [of democracy]. So will we, unless we give up."

It sounds like empty rhetoric. But it comes from someone who seems an unlikely politician - who regularly expresses his disinclination to be in politics, yet has founded Hong Kong's most successful political party.

He sees Mr Tung as being "a good man forced to do evil". "At the moment this is how the public is viewing him," he says. This is because the new Chief Executive seems to be "always standing on Peking's side".

Since entering the political arena, not much more than a decade ago, most of Mr Lee's fights have been with the colonial administration, yet he now feels that "Hong Kong people will miss Mr Patten very soon". He points to the number of people who were queuing up to be British subjects at the end of last year when Britain issued its last batch of passports. "I felt so sad for China," says Mr Lee. "This is the sunset of colonial rule and you still have so many of our compatriots queuing up to become British. Normally at the end of British rule you have strong anti-British feeling. Yet in Hong Kong you don't see that."

Nor will there be much chance of seeing Mr Lee leaving Hong Kong. "Hong Kong is my home. I cannot leave my people, particularly when they are going through such a difficult period."

Still, he describes Hong Kong as "not that beautiful a city to live in". He says that "when we finally have a good democratic system, then I can leave politics" - and maybe then Hong Kong as well.