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Martin Lee admits he didn't see it coming. The veteran Hong Kong legislator and democrat penned what he thought was a mild opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal. It called on U.S. President George W. Bush to use the approach of next summer's Olympic Games in Beijing to urge China's leaders to improve human rights.

No big deal, Mr. Lee thought. He has been calling for democratic reform in China for years, often urging foreign leaders to use their influence on China's Communist government. All he was saying this time was that, with the Olympics coming and Mr. Bush agreeing to attend, it was an opportune moment to press Beijing for democratic reform.

But when his article was published last month, "all hell broke loose." A jeering crowd demonstrated against him outside the Hong Kong legislature. No less than 95 articles denouncing him appeared in the Hong Kong press. Sing Tao, a big local daily, called him a "traitor."

Others mistranslated phrases from his article. One Chinese-language paper rendered his call for "direct engagement" with Beijing a call for "intervention" - a red flag to China, which still nurses bitter feelings over past foreign interventions. Still others said Mr. Lee had called for a boycott of the Games. He explicitly did not. He is against a boycott.

"My golly, I just didn't believe it," Mr. Lee said when I met him the other day in the colonial-era legislative building. "Lies upon lies upon lies."

Why the fierce reaction? It's partly local politics. Pro-Beijing candidate Regina Ip faces democrat Anson Chan in an important by-election on Dec. 2, and Mr. Lee thinks the pro-Beijing camp is trying to get to the popular Ms. Chan through him. But there's more to it than that. With the Olympics opening in just nine months, Beijing is feeling vulnerable. It wants the Games to be a showcase for China's impressive progress under the wise rule of the Communist Party, not an opening for democracy.

So anyone such as Mr. Lee who suggests that the Olympics should be anything more than a glorious tribute to China's advancement has to be slapped down. What better way, in a patriotic country deeply proud of the Games, than to denounce him as an enemy of China? Mr. Lee, banned from visiting China since the 1980s for speaking out on human rights there, is only too familiar with the tactic. "They're drumming up nationalism. They say, 'How dare you, Martin Lee, inviting George Bush to pressure Beijing and boycott the Games.' So I must be a traitor."

Dictatorships down the decades have smeared their critics with the same brush, accusing them of conniving with foreigners when they appeal to the outside world for help. The Soviet Union used the "traitor" smear against Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Burma's military regime uses it against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. China is no different.

Using it against Mr. Lee, a courtly lawyer who is the picture of civilized moderation, is absurd. He doesn't want to wreck the Games. He wrote in his opinion piece that "Chinese people around the world are proud that China will host the Games." Beijing, he added, "may indeed put on history's most impressive" Olympics.

What he is saying is this: The Olympics are not just an advertisement for China. They are an opportunity for change. South Korea was a military dictatorship when it bid for the 1988 Games. The world scrutiny brought by the Olympics is credited with helping move the country's leaders toward democracy. Today, South Korea has become one of Asia's most stable and successful democracies. Why couldn't China follow suit? And why shouldn't Mr. Bush and others urge it to do so?

As Mr. Lee points out, China itself promised that the Games would aid democratic reform. Beijing deputy mayor Liu Jingmin said that, when the city applied, the Olympics would help with the "development of society, including democracy and human rights." Mr. Lee is simply asking China to keep its word. For this he's a traitor?

China's progress has been awe-inspiring, and Beijing has every reason to show off when the world comes to visit in August. But to sustain its progress, Mr. Lee argues, Beijing needs to spread the rule of law, unshackle the media and the Internet, stop persecuting religious groups and address "modest calls for accountability in the political system."

If saying that makes him a traitor, says Mr. Lee, "call me a traitor every day."

mgee@globeandmail.com