Martin Lee prepared to stand out on his own

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 May, 1999, 12:00am

Martin Lee could hardly have been more provocative if he had tried. While other legislators denounced the Chinese Embassy bombing as 'barbaric', he opted for much milder terminology, calling it an 'unfortunate incident'.

This is a description Bill Clinton might have used. In fact, the Democratic Party leader had what could be interpreted as implicit praise for the US President having 'shouldered responsibility for the incident'. The killing of innocent Chinese civilians was mentioned almost in passing compared with a long description of Serb atrocities.

That part of his speech sounded almost like it had been written by a Nato propagandist, complete with a barb against Beijing for not reporting the ethnic cleansing in its state-controlled media. 'While we decry the bombing of the Belgrade embassy it is important to bear in mind the context in which it occurred,' Mr Lee said.

It was not a speech aimed at a Hong Kong audience, especially as he chose to deliver it in English in a debate when most other legislators instead opted, for obvious reasons, to use Chinese. Just for once, it was possible to have a little sympathy with leftist critics who claim Mr Lee is more interested in his US audience, where such soundbites will do his stature no harm.

Yesterday's debate was meant to be non-partisan. But Mr Lee's remarks left Tsang Yok-sing unable to restrain himself. 'He did not express support for the demands of Chinese officials,' the DAB leader complained. 'He only repeated the words of US officials and laughed at the ignorance of many people.' The Democrats loyally rushed to their leader's defence, and tried to twist his words into a form more palatable to Hong Kong opinion. His deputy, Yeung Sum, explained Mr Lee had just been giving information on Serbian atrocities by way of 'background'.

He even claimed the party's position on the bombing was identical to that of the central Government. That must have come as a surprise to Mr Lee, who made no mention of punishing those responsible for the error, even though this is one of Beijing's four demands.

Nor did other Democrats seem to share their leader's equivocations. Szeto Wah agreed the bombing was barbaric. Cheung Man-kwong called it an 'act of hegemonism'. He also did what Mr Lee had not and noted that the awfulness of the ethnic cleansing did not necessarily justify a bombing campaign which had so far made the situation even worse.

But the most impassioned Democrat was Albert Ho, whose speech sounded like something written by Xinhua. It was so impassioned that even Mr Tsang paid it a backhanded compliment, saying he would have been happy to deliver the same speech on behalf of the DAB.