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Fighting for Democracy

Martin Lee Fearlessly Advances Freedoms in Taiwan

By Timothy P. Yu

Martin Lee has one of the world's most thankless jobs: crusading for democracy in Hong Kong.

The 57-year-old lawyer is one of the colony's most popular politicians. His Democratic Party trounced its pro-China opposition 12 seats to two (out of 20) in this week's elections, which were the most democratic in Hong Kong's history. But as the Democrats gain prominence, they find themselves with few friends, caught in a vise on Bosnian peacekeeper would envy--and determined to press on.

"If you say resistance is confrontational, I say resistance is essential," Lee told the Wall Street Journal this week.

Even if 1997 finds him in a Chinese prison cell?

"I'm prepared for that," Lee said.

Lee's conviction is remarkable in a place that has taken its first, haphazard steps toward democracy only in the past 10 years. Hong Kong has of late become something of an embarassment to the United Kingdom, imperialism not being quite fashionable these days. The rule of law has generally prevailed in the colony, with freedoms of speech, press and religion guaranteed for everyone but the odd Communist activist. Still, until 1985, when the U.K. began to negotiate the colony's return to China, Hong Kong had no democracy; only in 1985 did the governors introduce some indirect representation into the legislature.

Since then, the franchise has gradually expanded, thanks largely to the dogged efforts of British Governor Chris Patten, who has done his best to tweak China since his arrival on the scene three years ago. In the face of China's displeasure and threats to dissolve all elected bodies upon the 1997 takeover as well as conservative and Pro-China opposition within the colony, Patten lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and institated direct elections for local councils. He also expanded to 20 the number of directly elected seats in the 60-member Legislative Council, while abloshing all appointed seats. The result: this week's election, which Patten called "the most credible and democratic...in our history."

But many Hong Kong residents, along with some outside observers, think Patten's labors are foolish, even suicidal. China has, after all, promised to preserve Hong Kong's free-market system and basic liberties for at least 50 years, giving the region a large degree of autonomy in exchange for silence on national and foreign affairs. And the way most people see it, China has no reason to renege. It's what some commentators call the "golden goose" theory: Hong Kong's thriving economy, capitalist infrastructure, and status as a hub of world business make it such a tantalizing prize that the Chinese won't dare to mess with it. (Deng Xiaoping himself has been known to say, "To get rich is glorious.") The theory has been so convincing that big business has come to see 1997 not as a disaster but as an unrivaled opportunity to crack the billion-strong Chinese market. Integrating Hong Kong into the mainland would bring down the barriers that slow trade traffic into China.

To this way of thinking, folks like Patten and Martin Lee are gate-crashers at 1997's tea party. Patten has been vilified in the Chinese press, while big business tugs at his sleeve, urging him to take it easy (The Economist called the 1994 democracy debates "a distraction" from more important matters, such as building a new airport.) More conservative Hong Kong residents worry that democratic saber-rattling invites a harsher crackdown in '97 and feel the best strategy may be to cuddle up to the new motherland.

For their part, Patten and the British government realize that a more independent legislature would be a powerful bulwark against Chinese political interference after the takeover. And perhaps they hope that a bit of democracy can find its way into the China-bound cash flow. If Hong Kong's capitalist ideals can infect the mainland, why can't democratic ones, too?

But whatever the goals of the British, homegrown democrats like Lee realize that the colonial masters won't be around to enjoy--or suffer through--the results. So Lee has moved aggressively to ensure that Hong Kong's almost seven million residents have a voice of their own, arguing that neither China nor Britain are interested in real democracy--only in "selling Hong Kong down the river," as he said of his British masters in 1991.

Like any democrat worth his salt, Lee has turned his back on the powers that be to seek a mandate from the people. And on the surface, he seems to have succeeded. In 1991, his Democrats won 12 of 18 directly elected seats in the legislature. When Patten opened the local councils to direct election last year, the Democrats won 75 of 346 seats, the single largest block. The three pro-China parties together won only 66, despite substantial backing from big business and the mainland. This week, Lee's party again beat the pro-Beijing groups.

But Lee's support might not run deep. Election turnout has been consistently low; this week, only about 35 percent of registered voters--less than one-quarter of those eligible--went to the polls. A June poll showed that 44 percent of Hong Kong residents cited economic issues as their main concern, while only 15 percent placed politics higher. On election day, the silent majority voted their pocketbooks and stayed home, refusing to participate in a process that would leave only a bitter taste two years down the road.

Democracy, Lee insists, is "what Hong Kong people want." But a political culture of democracy cannot be formed in four years, or even a decade. Hong Kong has lived a charmed life; paradoxically, British rule has meant freedom without democracy, a fact masked by the colony's enormous prosperity. The little taste of participatory government that Patten has brought to Hong Kong cannot nourish a democratic culture in the face of a takeover by a country that is neither democratic nor free; without the British model in place, Hong Kong may even find its long-held freedoms eroding, if only from neglect.

It will take a lot more Martin Lees to create a democracy capable of standing up to Beijing; the average Hong Konger will probably be satisfied with business as usual, which would be just fine with China. The Chinese are becoming savvy marketers themselves: the Chinese media is moving in to spread Beijing's word, the Bank of China Tower dominates the Hong Kong skyline, and the colony's outspoken South China Morning Post has been conveniently purchased from Rupert Murdoch by a wealthy friend of Beijing.

So with fewer than 700 days before the last lowering of the Union Jack, Martin Lee continues his quixotic struggle. He finds himself with a fragile mandate and no allies. Hong Kong business won't touch him; he has fallen out with Patten after calling Patten's compromise on Hong Kong's courts "the last nail in Hong Kong's coffin." Making peace with Beijing has long ceased to be an option. Lee's best gamble may lie not in toning down, but revving up, fighting the approach of '97 in the hopes of inspiring many more to fight in the years beyond.

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