allen lee peng-fei

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 June, 1999, 12:00am

UNTIL THE end of last year, Allen Lee Peng-fei was the leader of the Liberal Party. He had spent 20 years involved in what passes for politics in Hong Kong. He was appointed to the Legislative Council by then-governor Sir Murray MacLehose in 1978, when he was a 38-year-old electronics engineer and the youngest person ever to be granted this honour. And in 1986, Sir Edward Youde asked him to serve on his Executive Council, even though Lee didn't have a British passport. ('I'm the only person who ever served on the Executive Council with a CI [Certificate of Identity],' he told me, joyfully.) In those 20 years, the people of Hong Kong had only two opportunities to express an opinion on Lee. The first time, in 1995, they said yes please; the second time, in 1998, they said no thanks. Shortly afterwards, Lee announced he was stepping down as Liberal leader and James Tien Pei-chun took his place. That should have been the end of Lee's political persona (apart from his role as local delegate on the National People's Congress, which requires the oratory of a Trappist monk) but a funny thing happened on his way out of the public forum: for the past six months he has been bobbing up all over the place, speaking his mind.

Now, there are those who will claim no one quite knows where Lee's mind lies. He has, after all, been known to execute the odd U-turn: like the seats on the Star Ferry, it seems he can be flicked from one position to its exact reverse depending on which direction he wishes to be carried. But several of his recent pronouncements have been striking, particularly last month when, at a legal gathering about the rule-of-law issue, he chastised Martin Lee Chu-ming and Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee: 'You spoke up too late. You must speak for Hong Kong. You are the politicians.' A bit rich, you might think. Or - perhaps - the tone is of genuine regret. Has he wasted 20 years? 'No! No! No!' cried Lee, in his large, empty office where he runs a consultancy company. 'But I ask myself - did I lose out? I had political constraints as a party leader. You have shortcomings, there are things you cannot say freely even if you believe them. I was criticised internally more by the members than by the public! It was a handicap.' And he gave a big, hearty laugh. Lee, who has a likeable face and demeanour, is famous for this trait; at times, his words are half-swallowed by a great guffaw. After a while, I found that disconcerting because it seemed the less funny something was, the more he laughed (a classic example was his description of his relationship with his father, who seems to have had little interest in him apart from insisting that he study in the United States). Laughter, of course, is the perfect camouflage for all sorts of emotions. Much later, he said, 'I never handle things emotionally. Maybe because of my training.' And because of his childhood? 'Yes,' he agreed. 'Right.' He had already started to play see-saw by the time he was 14 - first he was a child of capitalism in a big house in post-revolutionary Shanghai, then he was a leader of the Communist Youth League, which meant he organised marches denouncing America because of its involvement in the Korean War. Given that his father represented General Motors, among other US companies, this could have made for interesting dinner-table conversation, but his father had already skipped to the US in 1948.

'One day, in May 1954, my mother gave me a ticket and she said, 'You have got to go to Guangzhou, look for a restaurant, the people there will give you a ticket to Macau.' And she packed my bag and said, 'Even if you miss me, don't write.' ' It was possible for him to enter Macau legally but Hong Kong required more subterfuge: he was smuggled in on a Portuguese merchant ship. 'A sailor came, he put me in the bathroom and gave me an apple. I stayed there while the customs officers came on board, then later they put me on a sampan and rowed me to Queen's Pier.' So he was an illegal immigrant? 'Yes! That's what makes me angry over the right-of-abode issue, I feel for those people. I told Martin Lee and Margaret Ng they should lead public opinion but instead the Government has the upper hand, scaring people with these numbers. The political system is a mess!' But what did he ever do about it? 'If I still led the Liberals, I would say the rule of law is the foremost thing.' Yet, as a politician, didn't he constantly follow the prevailing wind? (And indeed Jonathan Dimbleby describes him as a 'weather vane' in his book The Last Governor.) 'That's what the real world is all about! You say that's terrible but I taught Jimmy Tien that too. Let me tell you about his inexperience. He spoke up about Elsie Leung [the Secretary for Justice] and he said he would support the no-confidence motion in her, then he has pressure to change his stand. He shoulders the load, swallows the blame, did a U-turn. You have no choice!' Did he, in other words, spend two decades acting? 'Let me put it this way - a certain acting ability is required.' He is still an NPC delegate, though he doesn't have a high opinion of its efficacy. 'I have served only one man in Hong Kong, a person called Ng. He was in custody in Guangdong, I wrote to the secretary of the Communist Party there, two days later he was released.' So why remain a delegate? 'I was selected. But when President Jiang Zemin thanked the Hong Kong delegates for making a major contribution' - and here Lee laughed especially loudly - 'I thought to myself, 'I did nothing.' I request a lot. I requested an NPC office in Hong Kong, I must have written no less than three times, but to this day there is still no office.' Last year, just before the elections, he became ill and there was much dark speculation about his health. 'I've never been that sick before in my life, I thought I'd die, I was unconscious on the plane down to Singapore. And in hospital I realised, Hell, there's much more in life. Jesus, what am I doing?' It transpired he had hepatitis but the experience obviously gave him a shock, and he seems to have lost, if not his political will, then his political energy. 'I never thought I would lose that election, I thought my popularity would carry me through, but I ran that campaign half-heartedly.' And now? 'My wife says I went through two lifetimes, I worked for the British and then for the SAR Government. But I don't feel pressure any more. Now I'm a free man, I can speak what I really think.'