Hong Kong Voters Face a Choice: Confront China or Conform to It? : Politics: Martin Lee leads the charge for democracy. But election foes say the colony should stick to business.


Martin Lee, this British colony's most prominent advocate of greater democracy, is a man who seldom minces words. So, there may have been some surprised listeners recently when Lee, campaigning for votes in a key legislative election set for Sunday, seemed about to dodge a question.

The question, about whether communism faces the same fate in China that it has in the Soviet Union, was too sensitive to answer directly, Lee said. Instead, he quoted authority: "The Pope has said that communism is finished, and the Pope is infallible."

Such flair helps make Lee a hero to Hong Kong residents hungering for local leaders willing to stand up to the Communist government in Beijing, which is scheduled to assume sovereignty here July 1, 1997, under an agreement with the British. But others fear that democratic activists such as Lee, who has called for rapid political reform in both Hong Kong and China, risk provoking a dangerous backlash from Beijing. Hong Kong's future, they say, is best ensured by avoiding confrontation with China and sticking to the business of making money.

For Hong Kong's 6 million people, Sunday's election, more than anything else, will be a referendum on those two points of view.

The vote is historic because it represents the first time in the colony's 150-year history that its residents will directly choose some of their legislative representatives.

At stake are 18 seats in the colony's 60-member Legislative Council. An additional 21 seats--only nine of them contested--were filled Thursday through voting by members of selected occupational groups in what are called "functional constituencies." The 21 remaining seats go to appointed members and top civil servants.

The Legislative Council plays a largely advisory role in the Hong Kong government. Real power is held by the British governor, by an Executive Council whose members are all appointed and by the government bureaucracy.

Under the formula "one country, two systems," expressed in the 1984 Sino-British accord for China's resumption of sovereignty, Beijing has promised that Hong Kong can retain its capitalist economy and civil liberties for at least 50 years. It also has promised the colony a "high degree of autonomy" but not full self-rule. After 1997, Beijing will appoint the governor. The number of directly elected Legislative Council seats will rise to 20 in a 1995 election, but there is no guarantee of further democratization after that.

Against this background, Legislative Council members will exercise very little statutory power. But winners among the 54 candidates competing for the 18 seats at stake Sunday will be seen to hold a political mandate to speak for Hong Kong's people as 1997 approaches. While the candidates have sometimes talked about public services, health care and other local issues, the election revolves around questions of democratic reform in Hong Kong and in China.

Of the colony's 3.8 million eligible voters, about half have registered, and surveys indicate that slightly more than half of those registered will vote.

Public opinion polls indicate that members of the party headed by Lee, the United Democrats of Hong Kong, plus candidates from associated liberal reform organizations, are likely to win most of the 18 seats and thus become the dominant grass-roots political force in the colony.

On this basis, Lee, 53, an attorney, seems to see himself as the man who should be Hong Kong's equivalent of Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian Federation president who rallied opposition during last month's abortive Soviet coup.

"If Hong Kong had democracy, I would be forming the government because I have the credibility and mandate to do so on behalf of the people," Lee declared in an interview this week.

"This democratic election, in spite of its small numbers (of seats), is very important for our future," Lee said.

"Hong Kong people must believe that the future is very much in their own hands. If they say 'Don't upset China by asking for more democracy,' they will only lose more of their freedoms. If we say human rights will be given to us according to the whims of the Chinese leaders at a particular time, then we might as well kiss goodby to human rights."

The people of Hong Kong, Lee insisted, "can follow the shining examples in Eastern Europe."

Lee's political opponents believe such talk is irresponsible.

"Martin Lee is too aggressive," said Alfred Tso, a candidate on the ticket of the business-oriented Liberal Democratic Federation, which favors a non-confrontational approach toward Beijing and is the key rival of the United Democrats. "Hong Kong is not an independent country. It belongs to China. We must believe in China."

Tso, a businessman, said he is confident about Hong Kong's future because "China needs Hong Kong's economy."

Alexander Chang, an attorney running as a Liberal Democrat, criticized Lee as being unrealistic in his advice for China.

"I think Martin Lee's comments of criticism on China are rather unfair because China is such a big country," Chang said in an interview. "In Sichuan province alone, the population is about half the size of America."

Chang said what China needs more than democracy is basic respect, especially by officials, for the rule of law.

"Right now, the mainland is governed by people rather than law," Chang said. "Law and order will evolve through the development of China's economic activities. . . . In China, political reform will only come after economic reform. People will think of ideology when their stomachs are fed. Economic incentives will change people's ideas."

Most Hong Kong people, across the political spectrum, are united in the hope that China will modernize and become more democratic. Splits are primarily over whether it is safe for Hong Kong to try to promote political reform in China. The Beijing government, which in 1989 accused Lee of being "subversive" for supporting the pro-democracy movement in China, has repeatedly warned Hong Kong residents against meddling in mainland politics.

The Beijing-controlled China News Service declared in a recent commentary that failure by Hong Kong voters to elect people with "a high degree of political wisdom" could undermine Hong Kong's stability and prosperity.

"While the relationship between Hong Kong and China is becoming more important as 1997 approaches, voters should take a discreet attitude before casting their sacred vote," the news agency warned.

The commentary warned that "political twists and turns" in Hong Kong and a tense Hong Kong-Beijing relationship could weaken the stock market and drive away foreign investment.

The commentary provoked immediate debate here on whether Beijing was improperly interfering in the election or merely exercising its right to voice an opinion. Everyone saw it as a warning against electing candidates such as Lee. But in an election where being viewed as pro-Beijing seems to be a liability, such threats may simply increase the popularity of Lee and other United Democratic candidates.

If the United Democrats do come out on top, one of their first moves is likely to be to a call for at least half the legislature to be directly elected in 1995. China has declared such an increase "impossible" because it would conflict with terms of the Basic Law, a mini-constitution for post-1997 Hong Kong approved last year by China's National People's Congress.

"China says we can't amend the Basic Law, but I don't understand what they are talking about," Lee responds. "Of course it can be done, by the same legislature that passed the law. . . . If the Chinese government really cares for the people of Hong Kong, it would be in their interest to listen to the people of Hong Kong and to give them what they want."

Lee admits that as long as China is controlled by elderly men centered around 87-year-old senior leader Deng Xiaoping, this vision is little more than a dream.

But he also notes: "These changes taking place in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are bound to have an enormous effect on the rest of the Communist world. I just cannot see the Chinese leaders holding on forever. They are going to die one day. They are all very old men. The younger generation will see the need to change."

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