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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE DEMOCRAT

Martin Lee


MARTIN LEE CHU MING IS NO GARDENER. But, now that he thinks about it, it was a horticultural comment that set him off on the path to politics. That was back in August 1982, when he was leading a delegation of Hong Kong lawyers to Beijing. The conversation had turned to life in the territory after 1997, and Lee, waxing metaphorical for a moment, told his hosts: "If you see a lovely rose growing in your neighbor's garden, and you pluck it and put it in a vase, it will die in a few days."

What Lee was suggesting, ever so delicately, was that Hong Kong had prospered under British rule, and that China, while resuming sovereignty, should allow the British to remain. There was nothing oblique about the Chinese reply. Sovereignty without control was out of the question, the Hong Kong delegation was told. Martin Lee woke up to the fact that the political times were changing.

These days, Lee leads a double life, juggling his role as Hong Kong's best-known politician and leading democracy advocate with his long-running career as a top local barrister. He spends the mornings in court, the afternoons preparing his brief for the following day, the evenings on politics and the weekends meeting constituents. "It's hard to balance politics, the law and the family," the chairman of the Democratic Party says. More often than not, it's the family that suffers. Sundays are particularly difficult, Lee says, because that's when he and his party colleagues take their campaign to crowded restaurants. "When I see parents with their children, I always think, ‘Where's my child?' "

With a gold watch on his wrist, an Arctic-blue Jaguar saloon in the garage and a spacious flat in Hong Kong's swanky Mid-Levels district, Lee, 57, is no street-level rabble-rouser. Indeed, on the occasions he does join demonstrations, typically sporting a pro-democracy T-shirt and headband, he looks distinctly uncomfortable. Yet this bookish, sometimes over-serious lawyer and devout Catholic has established an authentic rapport with Hong Kong's grassroots. His party is the leading political organization in the territory and a sizable stone in the shoe of China's Communist Party.

The son of a Kuomintang general, Lee was born in Hong Kong in June 1938. His father refused to register his birth for 12 years because he did not want the child to be British -- an odd start for someone who, for all his protestations to the contrary, is these days perceived as happily Anglophile. After an uneventful childhood, Lee graduated without honors from Hong Kong University and took a job at a secondary school, teaching English, history and Bible studies.

Popular among his students for trimming their homework -- and, for his pains, receiving protests from their parents -- Lee taught for just three years. In 1963, he went to England to study for the bar, returning in 1966 to start his practice. For the next 15 years, he was dedicated to his work. "I was a full-time barrister and I took things very seriously," he says. "I looked at every case as my first and last."

Anxieties about life under Chinese rule began in 1981, when members of his small circle of friends began talking about acquiring foreign passports. Lee faced a dilemma. "Should I join the queue of emigrants or stay?" he recalls. "With the money I had, I could have lived comfortably anywhere in the world, but what would I do if I were basking in the sun somewhere? My little worm of conscience made me ask what I had done for the community, having taken so much out of it." So he decided to stay and "do something for Hong Kong." Says Lee: "I wasn't thinking of doing much. But if I tried and failed, it would be much better than not to have tried at all."

At the time, Lee was chairman of the Bar Association, a barristers' body, and it was in this capacity that he found himself in Beijing in 1982, talking about roses. Two years later, Britain and China signed their landmark Joint Declaration, which affirmed that Beijing would reclaim Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, ending the British administration but leaving the territory's capitalist system unchanged for 50 years.

Lee made his official entry into politics in 1985, when he was elected to the Legislative Council as the representative of the legal profession. He was returned unopposed in 1988 and re-elected by popular suffrage three years later. But it was June 4, 1989, that was to change everything for Martin Lee. The Tiananmen crackdown against Chinese democracy protesters convulsed Hong Kong, sending hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. At the front of the demonstration was a visibly shaken Lee, whose angry words about the suitability of the Communist Party to govern China were treated as seditious in Beijing.

Lee has since been a marked man -- a status that does little harm to the fortunes of the Democratic Party, but which makes his own fate after 1997 a staple of local dinner-party conversations. Will he end up in prison? "I don't think so," says Lee, who has no foreign passport, "but I am prepared for that." He jokingly explains that the reason he drinks only water -- no coffee or tea -- is that he is training for life behind bars. Come what may, though, Martin Lee says he has no intention of leaving his beloved Hong Kong.


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