Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hong Kong lawyer-activist pushes for democratic safeguards

Consider the case of the reluctant politician. ``People say politics is the art of the possible, and that politics means compromise - and perhaps dishonesty,'' says Martin Lee in his office overlooking this colony's Central District.

``If that's what being a politician means, I don't want to be one,'' he continues. ``In Hong Kong now, we must have ideals and we must pursue them all the way, even if we realize that we will never attain them.''

About these ads

It is not an attitude that has won Mr. Lee many friends in high places. Nonetheless, the soft-spoken attorney has emerged as a leading political voice in Hong Kong's running debate with itself - and China - over how it wants to be governed when Peking's sovereignty is established here in a decade's time.

A lawyer for two decades and an activist by temperament, Lee came to sudden prominence in Hong Kong when he was elected to the lawmaking Legislative Council two years ago. He has since become the most outspoken advocate of democracy in what is, in effect, the first generation of politicians that Hong Kong has ever had.

Although the voting in 1985 was indirect - it was restricted to professional groups and an electoral college - the polls were the first in Hong Kong's 144-year history as a British possession. They were intended as a first step toward a new political system that is to replace the colonial administration in 1997, when Britain's 19th-century leases expire and Hong Kong is turned over to China.

No one yet knows what kind of government Hong Kong will adopt, or just how democratic it will be.

But Lee views the question of direct elections as central to Hong Kong's survival. It is only with a popular mandate, he never tires of saying, that a future government here will be able to resist efforts by the mainland to manipulate local affairs.

``The first thing we have to do is keep our system separate from China's,'' Lee asserts. ``And to insure our autonomy, it's essential we have a democratic government.''

The political issue has preoccupied Lee almost since the Sino-British accord was signed in 1984. Though China has guaranteed Hong Kong 50 years of political and economic autonomy after 1997, Peking has also made it clear that a representative government incorporating elections by popular vote would be unwelcome.

About these ads

Hong Kong's fears for its future under China's control have intensified since the mainland's campaign against ``bourgeois liberalism'' began in January.

For Lee, this has only underscored the extent to which local confidence is tied to China's modernization program and its so-called open-door policy.

``What has happened in China may not affect us,'' says Lee. ``But how can we avoid a deep sense of anxiety? I find it difficult to believe a swing to the left in China can be confined to the mainland alone.''

Local concern has also been aroused recently by China's attitude toward a series of political reforms that Britain is due to introduce next month. Among other things, the administration is to decide, after assessing public opinion, whether to open some legislative seats to direct balloting in elections scheduled for next year.

A series of newspaper articles published in the Chinese-language press said recently Peking may undermine this process by barring such elections under the ``Basic Law,'' a post-1997 constitution that it is preparing for Hong Kong.

Chinese officials have neither confirmed nor denied the reports. But a senior Peking representative has asserted flatly that any reforms contradicting the Basic Law would be ``overruled.''

In the past, many similar statements by Chinese officials have been greeted here with a sense of defeat and hopelessness. But for Lee, they seem more a beginning - a starting point - than an end.

``The trouble is, too many people compromise much too soon,'' he argues. ``Instead of seeking what is best for Hong Kong, they ask, `What is the attitude most acceptable to China?'''

Lee has said that 25 percent of the seats in the Legislative Council should be opened to popular vote next year. In a conversation, he wonders aloud whether the best system for Hong Kong would require a legislature that is partly elected by popular vote, partly by an indirect vote, and partly appointed.

Not surprisingly, Lee's unyielding support for democratic elections gets highly mixed reviews from many local business executives who have sided with Peking in urging as little political reform as possible. Apart from a desire to forge new commercial ties in China, many business leaders believe Hong Kong's stability and prosperity are based on its unrepresentative colonial government.

Nor do government officials, who are cautiously seeking a point of ``convergence'' between Britain's reforms and China's Basic Law, seem to appreciate a man whose sources of political inspiration range from Plato to Thomas Jefferson.

``Martin [Lee] is a fleeting phenomenon,'' one British diplomat says. ``He got himself elected by elitist lawyers and now claims to be a man of the people.''

There is little question among political analysts, however, that support for direct elections has grown in Hong Kong since Lee began campaigning for them a year or so ago. And no one, it seems, takes issue with his sense of dedication.

``In terms of ability, you've got a pretty wide spread among the local politicians,'' the same British official says. ``But Martin always does his homework, he's always prepared for the task at hand.''

Despite Lee's professed distaste for the political fray, the role he has assumed seems entirely appropriate.

The son of a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army, he is well suited to defend the interests of Hong Kong's 5.6 million residents, most of whom fled the mainland after Chiang's Nationalist regime was defeated in 1949.

And like Hong Kong itself, Lee's background is something of a mix between East and West. After graduating from Hong Kong University, Lee gained entrance to the British bar in 1965 and became a lawyer here a year later.

Apart from his legislative duties - Lee sits on 20 committees and subcommittees - he is also a member of the Basic Law drafting committee, a group of mainland and Hong Kong representatives preparing constitutional proposals for China's approval. To manage it all, he says, he has dropped 90 percent of what legal associates say was a lucrative private practice.

The only things Lee has not given up, it seems, are his morning jog around Victoria Peak, Hong Kong's poshest neighborhood, time with his wife and five-year-old son, and what many say is an incurable sense of naivet'e.

``Naive is the polite word used by my critics,'' says Lee. ``And I freely admit that I am - in the eyes of most politicians. But then, I'm not one of them.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.