After avoiding public appearances with Chinese dissidents throughout his trip, President Clinton sought to assure them Friday he would press China's communist government to set all imprisoned dissidents free. "The United States is on your side," he said.

Clinton's remarks came a few hours after he met with pro-democracy lawmaker Martin Lee, who said he wants Clinton's visit to yield "concrete results" on political reform in China.During a news conference at the close of his nine-day China visit, Clinton defended his decision not to meet with dissidents, saying he felt he could be more effective in the long term if he raised human rights concerns directly with the government, "starting with the president."

He said he believed his public exchange over human rights with President Jiang Zemin was a big step toward accomplishing that goal.

"I believe over the long run what you want is a change in the policy and the attitude of the Chinese government not just on this, that or the other specific, imprisoned dissident or threatened dissident," Clinton said. "We believe that this new, heretofore unprecedented, open debate about this matter will lead to advances."

When asked what message he would send to Chinese dissidents, Clinton said, "My message is that the United States is on your side, and we did our best."

To show support for politicians and democratic reformers in Hong Kong, Clinton met with Lee, the leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, and several others among the 20 legislators who won recent legislative elections. Lee said Clinton's trip has been successful in launching a new openness in China, but he wants to see solid steps toward reform both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

"The door in China has been opened a bit," Lee said. "We in Hong Kong want to see the door open wider. . . . We hope to see concrete results of Mr. Clinton's visit - a faster pace of reform in terms of human rights, the rule of law and democracy."

Clinton and Lee, who last met in April 1997 in Washington, talked for about 20 minutes. After that session, Clinton met with some of Hong Kong's elected leaders, who said he spent most of the time simply listening to them.

The group included Democrats and other pro-democracy politicians recently voted into the legislature in the first elections since the territory returned to Chinese rule a year ago. Only a third of the legislature was elected by direct popular vote.

Those meeting with Clinton included both critics and backers of Beijing who won election by popular vote in the May 24 election.

Lee and other Democrats say Hong Kong's 6.5 million people have retained most of their freedoms since China regained sovereignty. However, the powerful Hong Kong economy has been dragged into recession by Asia's economic woes.

Lee said he told Clinton that "if Hong Kong can keep basic values of freedom and democracy, it would be a tremendous help to (the) entire region."

"I noted that you cannot separate economic and political freedom and expect economic prosperity to last," Lee said. "Rule of law, a level playing field, a government that is open, accountable, and responsive all these cannot last long without a strong democratic base."

Chinese leaders should look at the Hong Kong example "and see that there is nothing to fear from democratic elections or indeed, democratically elected leaders," Lee said. "Democracy works well in a Chinese community, under Chinese rule."

Populist Emily Lau of the Frontier movement said she told Clinton that the full legislature and Hong Kong's chief executive must be directly elected.

Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, called the meeting "a clear breakthrough," and said it had "good implications for Hong Kong."