Lee's balancing act

NOT unreasonably, millionaire and former Executive Councillor Mr Allen Lee Peng-fei, 52, is feeling aggrieved. Not bothered, mind you. He's been around too long for that. Just misunderstood.

Why? Mr Lee, a mathematician by education and a self-made man in business, is growing weary of people telling him he could not lead a horse to water, let alone persuade Hongkong voters to elect him to the Legislative Council.

This irks him. He believes that his proposed Liberal Party could become the voice for the silent majority of Hongkong who feel that the only way to ensure their future is to accept that a greater democracy is unacceptable to Beijing, and to get on with projects that will secure Hongkong as a prosperous Special Administrative Region after the transition in 1997.

With this in mind, he hopes to have his Liberal Party officially launched by June and to announce his intention to contest a directly-elected Legco seat in the 1995 elections.

He understands the scepticism which some of his rivals - and his supporters - have about his chances of achieving these goals. The conservatives were decimated in the 1991 maiden direct elections. Seventeen of the 18 non-appointed legislators are small ''l'' liberals or pro-democracy independents; the 18th, Mr Andrew Wong Wang-fat, is a fence-sitter. As far as the voting public was concerned, no conservative was worth elected office in Legco.

By default, the loose coalition of conservative Centre for Co-operative Resources legislators has undergone a policy U-turn. With the arrival of Mr Chris Patten last July, pro-democracy politicians have become the new allies of Government House and the conservatives have lost their Upper Albert Road power base.

The situation was made worse by the CRC's frequent trips to Beijing, where they have loudly espoused support for the Basic Law, and their failure to object to the hectoring that Beijing has directed at Governor Patten since he introduced his democracy blueprint last October.

For Mr Lee, the events of the last eight months came together last Saturday when he appeared with three other legislators, liberals Mr Jimmy McGregor and Ms Christine Loh Kung-wai and fellow Hongkong adviser to Beijing Ms Maria Tam Wai-chu on a special Asian edition of the CNN talk show Larry King Live .

In a 90-minute programme beamed around the world, a mischievous Mr McGregor scored highest with a combination of humour and a concerted defence of Mr Patten.

Ms Loh, a newcomer to political office, was forthright, succinct and authoritative. Ms Tam, who has her own political ambitions, bordered on the didactic but Mr Lee appeared to be all over the political shop.

He did not clearly explain his political views or why he did not support Mr Patten if he was ''fairly and squarely for Hongkong''; and he equivocated when asked about his political philosophy.

Publicly the committee of the still-to-be launched Liberal Party were united in their endorsement of his performance. Privately, opinion was divided. Some of those who feel they could do a better job as chairman, and win votes, declared it a disastrous effort while Mr Lee's supporters said he gave a credible performance.

On Thursday, just after 8am, Mr Lee was in the offices of the embryonic Liberal Party. He had already been there an hour.

He was cheerful and courteous. No one who has worked with Mr Lee has a bad word to say about him personally. Perhaps it was the years he spent as a student at the University of Michigan but he is down-to-earth, courteous and generous. ''If Allen has a problem, it is that he is too reasonable. Too sympathetic,'' said one of his former staffers.

''You can go in and see Allen with a request and he will not agree to it at first. Then he listens to you and if he thinks it is fair he will change his mind. He usually thinks it is fair.'' Perhaps it is this quality that makes him appear weak and an apparent puppet of Beijing. It also might be why he is sometimes regarded as a political rent-a-quote in the media. He doesn't like to say no, even to his critics.

''Look,'' he said, devoid of the jabbing finger that featured so prominently on Larry King about Hongkong last week. ''I don't think the Chinese have ever liked me, per se .

''I mean, for years I have been regarded as pro-British. Now suddenly, in the last 12 months, I have become pro-China. In actual fact, I am neither.

''It really irks me that my opponents say I have swayed from being pro-British to being pro-China. You say that we have been let down by China, but what about Britain? ''Lydia Dunn and I went to London to plead the Omelco consensus model for the elections and to demand the right of Hongkong people to a British passport. Our case was not considered.

''Then after we had debated the issue of elections for all those years, I went to London again, and found out that the British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and [former British Prime Minister] Maggie Thatcher describing the Hongkong relationship with China in terms of convergence. Convergence. We had never heard this word convergence from them before.'' Another Lee supporter thinks that his experiences with the British are the key to understanding his present position.

''Having been a Senior Executive Councillor, he has been privy to the British colonial policy on Hongkong for 15 years. He feels betrayed by Britain and he does not want Hongkong to have the same experience with Beijing,'' he said.

''Allen's problem is that he is farsighted. He sees the big picture but he is not as good on the detail. He believes we are about to lose one colonial ruler and inherit another. So why bother with a set of proposals that are only going to cause short-term trouble?'' Mr Lee's style seems to endorse these observations. He said this week: ''When we go to Beijing, [with fellow conservative Legislative Councillors] I tell them what Hongkong people want.

''For example, although I felt that the political reform issue is one of significant importance to Hongkong, it will go by.

''It does not matter whether the Patten proposals are carried in Legco or whether the Chinese like them or not. In 1997, the Basic Law will prevail, for obvious reasons, and it won't be for Mr Patten to make these decisions. They are the decisions of theNational People's Congress.

''So I told the Chinese not to worry. To get to the other issues: the airport which we know we need; Container Terminal 9; resumption of JLG (Joint Liaison Group) talks and the Land Commission negotiations.

''Did they listen? I don't know. They never say what they think. But I believe we have to tell them what is going on because these leaders in Beijing don't have any experience of Hongkong.'' In the same meeting, which took place after he and the latest batch of Hongkong advisers to Beijing were anointed in the mainland capital last week, he told them ''they had been pushing Patten too hard. Pushing him into a corner.'' ''I don't think such a strategy is good for China or Hongkong. He made some government proposals and the sensible thing to do is to discuss them. I don't think they liked what I said but it had to be said.'' Is this then the true Allen Lee: a man who has been unimpressed with his present colonial master and accepting of his future sovereign leader, sceptical as he may privately be about their understanding of Hongkong? If he can persuade the electorate that his pragmatic philosophy is the only way for Hongkong to ride the through train past transition he might be able to run and win office. He now has to face the uphill task of convincing the voters.