HONGKONG'S slippery slide towards Chinese communist control has never really earned front-burner status in United States politics. But for most Americans familiar with the territory's effort to secure a freer future, liberal leader Mr Martin Lee Chu-ming has long stood out as the unchallenged champion for greater democracy. Mr Lee continues to attract admiration in US political circles but his sheen has dulled somewhat in the past year. It is Governor Mr Chris Patten whose name now dominates discussions of Hongkong democracy among US policy-makers. Where once Mr Lee was often called the ''Boris Yeltsin of Hongkong'' in political small talk, that flattery is now reserved more for Mr Patten. When the Governor begins his high-profile Washington visit in earnest tomorrow he will be revered in Congress and the Clinton administration as the new maverick who dared poke a finger in China's eye, an act of bravado Democrats say even former presidentMr George Bush cowered from. If Mr Patten's wish list is realised he will meet not only US President Mr Bill Clinton but also Vice-President Mr Al Gore, Secretary of State Mr Warren Christopher, Treasury Secretary Mr Lloyd Bentsen, National Security Adviser Mr Tony Lake, and the most senior leaders of Congress. Such access is normally reserved for heads of state and other world leaders. British Prime Minister Mr John Major, Mr Patten's boss, saw the same people during his February trip to Washington. What is even more noteworthy but little noticed is the new US leadership will be granting an audience to the Hongkong Governor before having seen even a single Chinese leader, a gesture that may not go down well in Beijing. Even though Mr Patten's professed agenda in the US is to seek unconditional renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trade status for the sake of Hongkong, his celebrity status as the spokesman for Hongkong democracy is bound to overshadow his stated mission. Government and congressional officials agree there will be keener American interest in Mr Patten's highly-publicised brawls with Beijing over Hongkong democracy than in his MFN lobbying. Congress, which has made no secret of its loathing for China's communist rulers, will embrace Mr Patten with much gusto. ''He will receive a hero's welcome,'' predicted a close aide of Congressman Mr John Porter, a strong Hongkong advocate. But this affection for the outspoken Governor is clearly not shared by many in the US business community who trade with China or among China experts in the State Department. While none wanted to say so on the record, many privately faulted Mr Patten for rocking the boat at the expense of the business community and Hongkong. The recurring question is why Mr Patten is agitating for more Hongkong democracy at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. ''There are those in the US Government and business community who are uneasy with what Governor Patten is doing. They say he is threatening the economic prosperity of Hongkong,'' said Mr James Lilley, the US ambassador in China during the Tiananmen uprising who is now the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr Lilley, a strong supporter of the Patten reform plan, sees both pros and cons in the Governor's Washington trip. He says while it is important for the US to voice support for Hongkong democracy and listen to Mr Patten's argument for China's MFN status, the downside is Beijing will paint the trip as a foreign collusion against China. ''Governor Patten is seen here as the spokesman for democracy in Hongkong. But I really hope the spokesman for democracy in Hongkong will be the Chinese in Hongkong,'' Mr Lilley said. British diplomats in the US concede it will be impossible for Mr Patten to focus exclusively on MFN renewal for China in a country that holds champions of democracy in the highest esteem. ''Of course he will have to discuss his proposals for democracy. There is a lot of support here for his plan,'' one British official said. Dr Harry Harding, a China expert with the respected Brookings Institution where Mr Patten would speak during his visit, said it would be a serious mistake to think the Governor could avoid sensitive questions on his reform package. ''He has to be prepared to answer questions on reforms,'' Dr Harding said. ''What worries Dr Harding is that Mr Patten's popularity in Congress may produce well-meaning gestures of support that go beyond what is helpful to Hongkong in its search for a stable co-existence with China. ''Governor Patten will have to decide at what point the benefit from Congress will become a burden,'' Dr Harding said. But most agree that Mr Patten, a shrewd politician, will know how to make the most of his trip to Washington. He will be able to silence Beijing while enhancing his own stature simply by openly lobbying for China's MFN status, strengthening US support for his reform package while making clear Hongkong democracy is a matter for Britain and China, and getting his picture taken with Mr Clinton.