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Reds give Hong Kong a fit of election blues

Two years before 1997, voter interest is low
King's Road, Hong Kong, is a shopping street, like its counterpart in London, SW3. Outside the Treasure Restaurant, Martin Lee looks at election posters for his opponent, a young female lawyer called Choy So-yuk whom he describes as "a political nobody", and shakes his head.

"The management backs the Communists, so my posters keep disappearing," he says. A helper hands him a construction worker's hardhat. Mr Lee explains: "We're doing a motorcade, but people throw bottles."

It is hard to imagine why a mild-mannered barrister in his late fifties should inspire such hatred, but the Chinese government considers him the most dangerous man in Hong Kong. Peking has already made it clear that if he is re-elected to the colony's Legislative Council (Legco) on Sunday, as seems almost certain, he will be thrown out as soon as China takes control in 1997.

Mr Lee leads the Democratic Party, which spearheaded opposition to China in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, and which is expected to be the largest grouping in the legislature when the results are declared next Monday. In 1991, when the people of Hong Kong were given the chance to vote for the first time in more than 150 years of colonial history, he won the highest percentage of any candidate. Although the pro-China lobby has little chance of beating him this time, hundreds of workers have been mobilised in his district to make the result a little closer.

It is a steamy evening in North Point, a relatively middle-class district in the east of Hong Kong island and Mr Lee plunges with his band of green- sashed helpers into 416-426 King's Road, a 25-storey warren of flats with a metal grille on every door. "This is hostile territory," says the candidate. "Most of these people work for Chinese- owned companies, and their bosses are telling them to vote against me."

As his helpers lean on electronic doorbells playing "Fur Elise" and "Frere Jacques," Mr Lee sprints down the sweltering , strip-lit corridors to hand leaflets through the grilles. Even at 9pm, many people are still out at work, and most of those coming to the door are housewives or grandmothers. The cramped realities of Hong Kong life can be glimpsed - shirts drying on hangers, washing-up bowls in hallways - but it is a lifestyle many in the Colony, let alone mainland China, can only aspire to.

Every now and then a grille is unlocked so that the occupants can shake hands with the candidate, although few are willing to pose for a photographer. After five floors, each with 37 flats, Mr Lee is encouraged: "Only one man said 'No time.' Hong Kong people often feel unable to speak up for themselves, but they want someone to do it for them."

As the clock ticks down to 1 July, 1997, however, the number of people prepared to offend China becomes ever smaller. The Democrats have had difficulty finding enough candidates of any quality, and are fighting only 15 of the 20 directly-elected seats - Britain failed to persuade the Chinese to permit any more.

Peking prefers the indirect methods by which the other 40 Legco members will be chosen, which are easier to manipulate: it was the attempt by the Governor, Chris Patten, to open these up which caused a near-complete breakdown in relations with China.

Sunday's election may be the closest Hong Kong comes to a free vote, but past British failures mean that it will still be a long way from true democracy. If the Chinese government sticks to its word, the entire Legco will be replaced by a "provisional legislature". That makes it less surprising that if the inhabitants of 416-426 King's Road mirror the opinion polls, fewer than half, or even two-fifths, of the building's 2,000 registered voters will turn out on Sunday.