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9 Lives

With Individuals as Important as Ideologies in Shaping the Post-Cold War World, Here Are Nine Who Bear Watching

June 29, 1997|ROBIN WRIGHT | Robin Wright, based in Washington, D.C., covers global affairs for The Times. Her last article for the magazine was a profile of Army legend Alfred M. Baker

One grew up in a Harem, another in the poverty of the Andean highlands, another with an uncle because his parents were suspected of sedition. Some tripped into power; others had ideas that inexorably elevated them to the forefront. The common denominator is that each is a defining force at the end of the 20th century in his or her region--and often well beyond--and symbolizes a new approach or solution to a critical issue of the1990s. Each is, in a word, a leader. These nine wield disproportionate influence. They are providing ideas and energy for a world in transition and inspiring others to follow suit.


Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, never intended to become a politician, but family history made it almost inevitable.

During the 1920s, Lee's father studied in France with a Chinese student named Chou En-lai. Both politically active, they once spent 24 hours heatedly debating their nation's future. The session ended at dawn with a handshake, but no agreement. "They respected each other but were never able to convert each other," Lee recalls of a favorite family tale that would divert the course of his life a half century later.

Lee's father went back to China and rose through the ranks of the Kuomintang's Nationalist Army to become a general. Chou returned to found the Communist Party at the side of Mao Tse-tung. Lee was 12 when Mao's Long March overran the Nationalists in 1949. His family was on the last flight out after Communist troops crossed the Yangtze River. The Lees settled in Hong Kong.

But Chou En-lai did not forget Lee's father. Every year until Chou's death an emissary arrived from Beijing to appeal to him to return to help rebuild and lead China. In the early 1980s, as discussions opened to transfer Britain's last colony to Chinese control, Lee finally accepted the offer his father had refused. As chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Assn., he agreed to visit China. His host was Deng Xiaoping, one of Chou's heirs.

Lee also agreed to help Beijing write a new constitution for Hong Kong. "My father told me that the Communists wanted to use me. I thought long and hard," he says in his measured, whisper-soft voice. "But one reason Hong Kong was successful and China failed was because of rights enshrined in the rule of law. At least I had an opportunity to influence China for Hong Kong's sake."

Lee insisted on and then crafted Hong Kong's new bill of rights. His relationship with Beijing ended, however, with the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Appalled by the crackdown, Lee shed his conservative lawyerly suit for a protest headband and T-shirt to lead hundreds of thousands of protesters through Hong Kong's streets. China fired him from the constitutional committee. But the experience galvanized Lee, one of a growing number of figures who, through grit, daring and often their own resources, are fighting for democracy in Asia.

Lee launched Hong Kong's first political party and led it to sweeping victories in the first democratic legislative elections in 1991 and 1995 despite China's meddling and money. He quickly became Hong Kong's most popular politician.

When China absorbs Hong Kong this Tuesday, both the legislature and the bill of rights will be scrapped. But Lee is not surrendering. He is stumping the globe, appealing to governments and anyone else who will listen to look at the principle of, not just the profit in, dealing with the world's most populous state. "Governments all seem to be looking at one thing: the trade pie," he charges. "They are willing to sacrifice the human rights of 6.5 million people in Hong Kong for the market rights to 1.2 billion in China.

"With the support of the outside world, we finally won basic human rights," Lee adds with as much frustration as anger. "Now Hong Kong is going to be annulled. We will disappear, and with it will go our freedoms. Where is the outside world now? Where is its outrage?"

Although 118 of the world's 191 countries are in varying stages of democratic rule, vast numbers have limited or no political rights in the 1990s. Asia--from Syria on the Mediterranean and Uzbekistan on the Aral Sea to Singapore on the South China Sea--is home to the most and the mightiest of the world's undemocratic regimes. Twenty of 37 countries have yet to make the transition, according to Human Rights Watch reports.

Lee also challenges the new conventional wisdom of the post-Cold War world: that democracy can't penetrate Confucian societies. "Democracy is not just a Western concept. Asians are no different from anyone else. We need and want as many freedoms as Americans or Europeans," he says. "The fire of democracy has ignited people. It may take a long time and be more difficult than we ever thought, but there's no going back."


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