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Profile : Hong Kong Dissident Is Preparing for the Worst : For Martin Lee, 1997 is coming all too quickly. The British colony will revert to Chinese sovereignty then, and Lee is certain that spells doom for human rights in the colony.

December 17, 1991|CHRISTINE COURTNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONG KONG — Martin Lee, Hong Kong's de facto opposition leader, says he is prepared for the worst when this British colony reverts to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under a Sino-British agreement.

"I'm ready to become a political prisoner. As for my family, it is really a decision for them. If things get very bad, I would like them out (of Hong Kong)," he said.

Whether Lee will become a democratic reformer or a martyr remains to be determined.

An attorney, Lee heads the United Democrats of Hong Kong, a political party dedicated to the development here of an autonomous democratic system capable of surviving the transfer of sovereignty.

Lee's campaign for democratic reforms in Hong Kong has caused a political stir among officials in both London and Beijing, and some see him as such a disruptive force that he could seriously complicate British-Chinese relations.

A pro-China newspaper here published an article denouncing him as "an unbending loyalist to colonialism," "a stumbling block to improving Sino-British relations" and "one who works against national interest."

Meanwhile, Lee criticizes the British government for its alleged lack of concern for the rights and freedoms of the residents of its crown colony.

Hong Kong's future hinges on Beijing's adherence to a "one country, two systems" formula as stated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which promises that Hong Kong can maintain its capitalist system for at least 50 years after 1997.

But residents are clearly nervous.

In a poll conducted by Asian Commercial Research, 55% said they lack confidence that China will keep its promise. And people are emigrating at a rate of more than 60,000 a year.

Lee says that Britain, as well as China, is to blame for the erosion of confidence in the Sino-British accord. He accused British Prime Minister John Major of failing to bring up the subject of full democracy in Hong Kong during his three-day visit to Beijing last fall and charged that such behavior demonstrates London's lack of real concern.

The British government has defended a new system of limited democracy in the colony under which the first direct election for some members of the largely rubber-stamp legislature, the Legislative Council, took place Sept. 15. Eligible voters among Hong Kong's 5.8 million people elected 18 representatives, including Lee, to the 60-member council.

After the elections, Lee called upon the British government to ensure that at least half of the council would be directly elected by 1995.

"Yet, the governor (of Hong Kong) now blusters that the pace of democracy depends on how well the new legislature works," Lee says. "I wonder how many times throughout history have unelected kings and despots repeated this pretext to deny democratic rights to their subjects!"

Adds Lee: "Hong Kong is seeing for the first time that it has councilors who are willing to take a brave stand on any issue against any government in order to protect the interest of its people."

Lee was born in Hong Kong in 1938, but his birth was not registered for 12 years because his father, a Chinese Nationalist general who fought the Japanese in World War II, did not want him to be born a British subject. Years later he studied law in London, where he met his wife, Amelia, who is also Hong Kong Chinese but with a British passport.

"I had a very ugly mustache and I thought that was a good way to keep girls away from me," he recalls of his law school days. "But seven days after I met Amelia, I shaved it off. . . . It was entirely a voluntary act."

While he could probably get a British passport without much trouble, Lee has never applied for one as a matter of principle. He wants the people of Hong Kong to know that he does not plan to desert them.

Lee says he prefers to stay here and fight, even if China's takeover in 1997 leads to political upheaval.

"We desire democracy as deeply and urgently as any other people in the world. Our people have spoken loudly and firmly: We demand our right to rule ourselves and to manage our own affairs," Lee said in a policy debate last October.

A Hong Kong Baptist College lecturer in communication, To Yui-ming, predicts that Lee's "party of the people" will be China's first victim in the colony.

"If China maintains a tough policy towards Martin (Lee), he may be forced to step down from the Legislative Council" even before 1997, To said.

Lee contends that China is wrongly interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs. "This clearly is a breach of the Joint Declaration. . . . China made some really ominous statement cautioning the people of Hong Kong to be careful in how to select the candidates, and that they must not vote for anyone who may cause confrontation with China, namely us (United Democrats). Instead, they should elect those who can work with China, meaning them (Chinese officials)." Lee said. "But this is a very ominous statement because this is only 1991. What will they say during the next elections in 1995?"

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