The Man Beijing Is Rooting Against

Hong Kong faces a historic election Sunday. It will be the first time that residents of the British colony will directly elect representatives. The number of seats at stake is not enough to topple the sitting government, but the winners could have a significant impact on Hong Kong's relations with China. For the front-runner is a champion of democratic reform and, needless to say, no favorite of Beijing's.

The man and party to watch are Martin Lee and his United Democrats of Hong Kong. Only 18 of the 60 Legislative Council seats are up for election, but Lee's party is expected to capture the majority of those. The remaining seats are occupied by members of professional groups and by appointees of the governor.

Lee, a wealthy, London-educated lawyer, has been an outspoken critic of both China and Britain since 1984 when the two reached an agreement for Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. His denunciation of the 1989 Tian An Men Square massacre prompted Beijing to oust him from the committee that drafted Hong Kong's post-1997 constitution.

Ever fearful of democratic sentiments, the Xinhua news agency branch in Hong Kong, which doubles as China's informal embassy there, recently cautioned voters to consider "the attitude of each candidate towards Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland."

If Lee emerges as the de facto leader of the opposition, his legislative clout will be lessened by the fact that Britain shortchanged Hong Kong democracy by agreeing to limit the number of elected legislative seats to a third. Nevertheless, the United Democrats may emerge with an authority that transcends their formal powers. Even Xinhua acknowledged that those elected Sunday will have "a measure of influence over Hong Kong's future policy." The flicker of democracy could ignite.

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