Last stand of the awkward squad

The winner of Hong Kong's last colonial election has been labelled a subversive by Peking. But he plans to stick it out
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The Independent Online
MARTIN LEE, the leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, which recently triumphed in the legislative elections, relates that he came home from a television appearance in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre to find Joey, his eight-year-old son, sobbing in his bed.

"You're not going to give me a birthday present in 1997," said Joey. His father asked why not. "Because you'll be in jail." Joey had been watching his father on television pointing out the grave consequences of the shootings. This stance was supported by record numbers of viewers phoning in to register a vote of no confidence in Hong Kong's future after the 1997 Chinese takeover.

Joey Lee has every reason to worry about his father remaining at liberty after 1997. After Tiananmen Square, Martin Lee was in the forefront of Hong Kong protest demonstrations and was quickly labelled a "subversive" by the Chinese government. This charge is not handed out lightly. In China those accused of subversion face the death penalty.

In the years since 1989 Mr Lee has, if anything, become more disliked by Chinese officials. His latest offence is to have ledhis party to an election victory on a clear mandate, which he describes as providing legislators with the "backbone to protect Hong Kong from Beijing".

Because Peking dislikes Mr Lee and others like him, it is threatening to dissolve the legislature as soon as it takes over.

Chinese officials also refuse to say whether Mr Lee would be allowed to serve even if elected under a Chinese-devised system. Not only could China ban Mr Lee from any Chinese-constituted legislature, it could, he believes, kill off his practice as a barrister. It would not take much for the word to go round that China did not approve of solicitors briefing Mr Lee, who happens to be one of Hong Kong's highest-paid lawyers and a QC.

It is even possible that Mr Lee will become a political prisoner. "I think it's unlikely," he says, but in the same breath points out: "If you look at this part of the world, in what country do you not find political prisoners?"

Yet Mr Lee refuses to let concerns about what may happen influence what he is doing. Indeed, he is remarkably optimistic about the future, given the rash of indications which suggest there will be no place for his ilk in the new order.

"If you assume the worst," he says, "nothing will happen; you might just as well get out of here. Surely that's not the way to do things?"

He refuses to peer into the abyss, almost as if to do so would suggest a type of defeatism which he refuses to contemplate. "It's far to early to gaze into the future," he says. "I don't think even the Chinese leadership know what they're going to do in 1997."

Some of his critics have accused Mr Lee of being a martyr. The blunt fact is that he is a paid-up member of the awkward squad, a trait he may have inherited from his father, who was a general in Chiang Kai-shek's anti-communist Kuomintang army (KMT). However, when the communists were victorious in 1949, his father refused to join the KMT in exile in Taiwan. He believed the party he had served was riddled with corruption.

Instead he took his family, including Martin Lee, out of China on the last flight to leave Canton for Hong Kong. Once settled in the British colony, he was visited each year by an emissary from Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier and a great survivor of Chinese politics, who had known the elder Mr Lee from their days as students in France.

The Lee family were perpetually on the move, attempting to avoid visits from Zhou's emissary, but he always found them and repeated the offer for Mr Lee to return and serve the motherland. Adamantly anti-communist, he refused to go. Equally, he refused to visit Taiwan, where the island's government frequently offered him large sums in back salary if he would only pay a visit.

His son is also stubborn, although he talks a lot about compromise these days. Yet China has given no indication that it is willing to accept conciliatory overtures from Mr Lee and his colleagues. During the election, his constituency opponent taunted him with the fact that he could not put one foot over the Lo Wu border crossing into China, a view borne out by China's recent veto of an invitation for him to address a regional law conference in Peking.

Martin Lee knows all the dangers, but insists he will not leave Hong Kong. "I am not going to be threatened by China into submission," he says. Nor will he leave and become a dissident in exile. "To be effective I've got to be here," he insists, pointing to the dismal example of Chinese dissidents living overseas who have little impact back home.

He is also aware that it would be unwise to count on mass community support if he were to be persecuted for his beliefs under Chinese rule. Whatever people do will be suppressed, so it can only mean more will be sacrificed, he says.

On his bookshelf is a copy of the memoirs of the Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. "I'll read it when things get tough," he says. It was given to him by the lawyer who first urged him to get involved in politics - a move which has taken Martin Lee a long way from the well-paid world of the Supreme Court to pound the streets in search of votes and earn a place at the top of Peking's blacklist.