June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

MARTIN LEE WAS 27 AND FRESH out of law school when he made his first visit to the United States—a one-month, $99 transcontinental bus tour in the summer of 1965. The Hong Kong native still savors memories of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and winning a poker game at a Las Vegas casino. But what stands out most in his mind is something another tourist might have overlooked entirely. “That first trip,” he says, “showed me a pure sense of freedom.” Three decades later that sense has led Lee, now 59 and a lawyer, to center stage in a historic confrontation pitting him against China’s authoritarian government. After 155 years under British control, Hong Kong will revert to Chinese rule July 1. With that deadline looming, the normally soft-spoken Lee has been transformed into a globe-trotting defender of liberty, warning that Hong Kong faces a future of stifling repression. “While the rest of the world is going toward democracy and the rule of law,” says Lee, “Hong Kong is condemned to go in the opposite direction.”

Already there are ominous signs of what Chinese control will mean for the 6.4 million people living within Hong Kong’s 437 square miles. The Chinese government has announced it will disband the Hong Kong legislature in favor of a new body handpicked by Beijing. Tung Chee-hwa, the shipping magnate chosen by China as Hong Kong’s first chief executive-designate, has proposed restrictions on public demonstrations expected to take effect after the handover. And China plans to scrap key provisions of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights. Lee is among the few politicians courageous enough to speak out in opposition. “Martin is this quiet, modest man, but he has a backbone of steel,” says Carl Gershman, president of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group that recently gave Lee its 1997 Democracy Award (previously won by the Czech Republic’s President Václav Havel). “He never gets angry at people but can get worked up to defend a principle.”

As the leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, the largest bloc in Hong Kong’s current elected legislature, Lee feels compelled to fight against the erosion of Hong Kong’s rights. His outspokenness has won him no friends in the Beijing government, which has barred him from the country. And pro-People’s Republic politicians fault him for being out of touch with present-day China. But says novelist Bette Bao Lord, who was born in Shanghai: “There is an old Chinese saying: People who speak the truth will say what autocrats don’t want to hear.”

Despite the friction, Lee feels a bond with China, where he lived until he was 11, the sixth of seven children of a Nationalist general who opposed Communist leader Mao Zedong. His mother was visiting Hong Kong in 1938 to play mah-jongg when she went into labor with Lee. “She was in the middle of a game,” he says. “She must have said something like, ‘Oh, dear, I’m sorry,’ and went off and had me.”

By 1949, with the Communist revolution taking hold, the family fled their home in Canton for Hong Kong. There, Martin was known as the most stubborn of the family’s children, as interested in soccer (he’s still an avid fan) as his studies. He attended a Jesuit high school, where he was inspired to convert to Catholicism and briefly considered becoming a priest. Instead, he chose the law. He was studying in London in 1964 when he met his wife, Amelia, now 52, who works part-time at his law office and with whom he has a son, Joey, 15.

Returning to Hong Kong in 1966, Lee rose to become one of the colony’s top trial attorneys. But by the early ’80s, anticipating the agreement that would eventually return Hong Kong to China, many of his colleagues were contemplating emigrating to the West. After struggling with the decision, he chose to stay put. “I decided to do my best to help Hong Kong preserve the rule of law because to me that is the most important thing,” he says. “That is the one thing we have which they in China do not have.”

It was that belief in the law that inspired him to run for political office in 1985. The turning point for Lee, growing increasingly disenchanted with Beijing, came in June 1989, after Chinese troops killed hundreds of democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Lee, ditching his business suit for a headband and T-shirt, helped spearhead two rallies in Hong Kong that attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters and led Beijing to brand him a subversive.

Despite the drama in his life, Lee has prospered financially, and the family lives in a spacious high-rise apartment with a sweeping view of Hong Kong harbor. Some supporters worry that, come July 1, Lee’s outspokenness could force him to give up that vista for a Chinese jail cell. Even if it does not, Lee may see his public support fall away if Beijing cracks down. But he has no plans to flee. “We will stay in Hong Kong,” he says of himself and democracy’s other defenders. “If we leave, we become irrelevant.”

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER

ANDREA PAWLYNA in Hong Kong and ANDREW MARTON in Washington

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