How One Bold Man Stands Up to China Democracy-Leader Martin Lee Fights for Hong Kong's Rights

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AS Hong Kong moves toward July 1, 1997, when British colonialism ends and this frenetic Chinese entrepot rejoins the mainland, no one speaks more critically of the colony's two masters than Martin Lee. Even though nearly two years remain until the Union Jack is lowered and China's flag rises over Hong Kong, Democratic Party leader Mr. Lee says the colony is already in Beijing's shadow. This vocal critic says China's ruling Communists, uneasy over a succession battle to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, are already barking threats to muzzle the colony's fledgling democracy, of which he is now a leader. And only a few years after enraging China with steps toward political reform, Britain is seeking to appease China and boost trade ties before the colony reverts to Chinese control, he charges. "In Beijing, we have the end-of-dynasty syndrome, and in Hong Kong, we have the end-of-colony syndrome," says Lee, one of Hong Kong's best-known politicians. "The people of Hong Kong don't know what to do. The great majority can't emigrate." Lee spearheads a colony legislature that has grown increasingly assertive, especially in the wake of the recent elections. This contrasts sharply to the past when British governors and their advisers ruled this cluster of islands, and residents had little to say in their government. Basking in a resounding victory in a Sept. 17 poll, the prominent barrister and his allies could command a majority in the 60-member Legislature Council or "Legco" as it is known here. They stand as a challenge to Beijing, which is angry over political reforms that have emboldened local democrats. China has vowed to replace elected politicians with its own appointees when it takes over in two years. "I don't think the Chinese leaders know what to do," says Lee, who recently was denied a visa to attend an Asian law conference in China. "They had expected their people to do much better. "If this election shows anything, it shows that the Hong Kong people want Legco to defend them," he says. "That is the message loud and clear to both the Chinese and British governments." That rebuff to China has been applauded in the West and has won Lee international renown. In August, the lawyer was honored by the American Bar Association and awarded its human rights award. But at home, the bookish, professorial lawyer, who is a devout Roman Catholic, dons only impeccably tailored suits, and drives a sleek Jaguar, is considered a curiosity at best by many. Solemn and awkward out on the political hustings, Lee is regarded as a threat among a population obsessed with commerce and worried about their soon-to-be Chinese rulers. Political rivals charge that the lawyer, the son of a general in the Nationalist Army that was defeated in 1949 by the mainland Communists, needlessly taunts Beijing. He endangers a smooth transition to the rule of China, which has pledged to run Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" principle, critics say. Elsie Tu, a former legislator favoring a more measured approach to Beijing, says that Lee "is undermining the future of Hong Kong by being so confrontational." "You have a community that is very frightened," says a Western human rights activist. …