Posted:  Jan. 7, 2011


For all the disagreement about how to realize them, Hong Kong’s democracy movement is united in its ideals and its respect for those who dedicate their lives to the cause at whatever cost.  Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Shaobo is such a person and so was Szeto Wah (Situ Hua) who remained a tough and independent spirit throughout his life.  As a Chinese patriot, he loved his country but as a dedicated democrat he could not accept its current form of government.   He also saw no reason why he should be forced to choose and for those ideals he will be remembered here as a faithful representative of mainstream public sentiment.   He died on January 2, shortly before his 80th birthday, after a year-long battle with lung cancer.

Known affectionately as Uncle Wah, Szeto and Martin Lee Chu-ming are acknowledged as founding fathers of Hong Kong’s contemporary movement for democratic political reform and both have suffered the consequences.  Among other things, both have been barred from travelling to the mainland since 1989.  The ban resulted from their role as leading founders not just of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party but especially of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, and for their tireless campaigning on its behalf.

The Alliance was established at the height of the mainland political reform movement that culminated in its May 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square.  Central government authorities in Beijing regard the organization and its leaders as subversive because they still advocate, as they did in 1989, an end to one-party dictatorship, and because they have never really abandoned the 1989 dream of working from Hong Kong for the democratization of all China.  They also continue to call for vindication of the protesters who were cleared from the square by military force on June 3-4, 1989.  After the crackdown, Szeto and the newly-formed Alliance created an underground escape route via Hong Kong and helped many mainland participants flee the political retribution that followed.

In 1989, Beijing wanted the British to ban the new organization but they refused and in a futile attempt to deflect Beijing’s wrath, the two men decided on a division of labor.  Martin Lee withdrew from active leadership of the Alliance to concentrate on political party work, while Szeto Wah carried on as the public face of Hong Kong’s defiance.  Although by then bedridden, he was re-elected to his 21st consecutive year as Alliance chairman only a few weeks ago.  It was Szeto, among others, who insisted on continuing to defy Beijing by keeping the memory of June Fourth alive when many fellow democrats began to lose their nerve in the early 2000s.  Under his leadership, Hong Kong remained the only place in China that continued to commemorate the crackdown with an annual candlelight vigil.  The huge overflow crowd of 100,000-plus that filled Victoria Park last June was a spontaneous tribute in unspoken recognition that he was probably presiding for the last time.

Always an ardent patriot, Szeto was infuriated in early 2004 when vitriolic blasts from Beijing officials and Hong Kong loyalists accused him, as leader of the Alliance, plus Lee and others of being  traitors, disloyal to the nation, stubborn remnants of colonial rule, and unfit for political leadership.  The occasion was a Beijing-sponsored political study campaign following Hong Kong’s mass upsurge of protest that had forced withdrawal of national security legislation the year before.  Beijing wanted Hong Kong to understand that passing the legislation was the litmus test of patriotism.   In response, Szeto accused his accusers of “talking rubbish” and denounced an old comrade as “Judas” when he bent before the rhetorical storm.   Szeto refused to accept Beijing’s definition of national security, which in practice means national political security or unquestioned loyalty to the communist party’s way of governing, and he remained defiant to the end.

After his illness was made public early last year, loyalist  politicians hastened to express sympathy saying they would intercede with Beijing to lift the travel ban so he could return “for medical treatment” —  an increasingly popular solvent for awkward political cases.  He scoffed at the offer, calling his long-time critics “hypocrites” and saying his doctors here were good enough.  He would rather remain in Hong Kong than agree to such a conditional return.   Toward the end, his friends presented him with a “virtual” return-trip to his native Kaiping County in neighboring Guangdong province, so he could at least see the old familiar sites he had been unable to visit for over 20 years.


           The Szeto family migrated from Kaiping to Hong Kong in the 1940s and after graduating from a local teachers training college in 1952, Szeto Wah embarked on an ordinary teaching career.  He lacked the polish that came with overseas study, never married, and seemed oblivious to the pretentions of the world around him as he became more prominent.  By the early 1960s, Szeto was headmaster of a primary school in the working class Kwun Tong district of east Kowloon where one-time missionary Elsie Elliott also ran a school.  Both were already on their way to becoming two of Hong Kong’s best-known social activists at a time when there was no other outlet for their political talents.  And both found themselves in the crosshairs of a colonial government bent in those days on what was politely dubbed the “administrative absorption of politics.”

Szeto’s skills as an agitator and organizer gained wider recognition in the early 1970s when he led Hong Kong’s first teachers’ strike, over a government decision to cut salaries.  A year later, in 1974, he converted to Christianity and founded the Professional Teachers Union, which went on to become the important base of pro-democracy support it remains today.  Also in the 1970s, he lent his voice to the “mother-tongue” language movement that was agitating for the use of Cantonese as a medium of instruction.  Another of his causes was the campaign protesting Japan’s revision of its textbooks, allegedly to whitewash atrocities committed in China during World War II.

Szeto’s character is perhaps best reflected in an unlikely source that dates from this period of his life.  Because he had always been strongly patriotic, sympathized with the new post-1949 communist-ruled China, and had joined a leftist youth group in the 1950s, rumors continued to circulate in the 1970s that he was actually an underground communist agent.  The British were so worried about such things that in 1978 they set up a security operation known as the Standing Committee on Pressure Groups, or SCOPG for short. This exercise ended abruptly after someone leaked its secrets to the British press in 1980, which allowed Hong Kong’s growing number of community activists to discover what was being said about them behind closed official doors.

With 18,000 members and as the largest most active and potentially disruptive organization in the colony, Szeto’s Professional Teachers Union naturally figured in the security assessments earning it the designation “communist united front target.”  Central to its influence, however, was Szeto Wah and in his case investigators expressed little doubt.   They characterized him as an “ambitious and determined person,” but one with an independent frame of mind.  Consequently, “communist influence in the Union will be inhibited as long as he remains in control.”  He was its driving force but the larger union membership “does play an important part in steering the direction the Union is heading.”

Everyone always assumed the rumors about him originated from insider British sources but if so they were playing a duplicitous double game, which in those days on this issue was entirely possible.   Even though it now has 82,000 members and is into its third leadership generation, the union remains as it has always been.  Szeto continued at the helm until 1990.


When the British finally introduced political reforms in the 1980s, among the first steps was the addition of occupational representatives to the then all-appointed Legislative Council.  These were the forerunners of today’s entrenched Functional Constituencies.   In the first Legislative Council election of this kind, candidates Martin Lee and Szeto Wah generated the greatest public excitement evidently because the two men were the most outspoken champions of more political reform, by which they meant a directly-elected legislature.  Both were elected in 1985, representing lawyers and educators respectively.

Lee’s victory was something of a surprise since another candidate seemed to have more support within the legal fraternity, but Szeto’s victory was a foregone conclusion due to his loyal base of teachers union supporters.   Many others would have voted for him as well, however, because he was already building another base and laying the foundations for the Democratic Party.   Established in the early 1990s, its mid-1980s forerunner was a coalition of pressure groups that Szeto organized to agitate for direct elections.

When they were finally allowed, in 1991, pro-democracy candidates swept the field with Lee and Szeto joining the first batch of 19 to win Legislative Council seats by direct popular vote.  Szeto ran in the constituency formed by his old Kwun Tong neighborhood, setting the stage for a mighty confrontation during the next 1994-95 election cycle.   “Uncle Wah is no saint,” said a comrade-in-arms who recently crossed swords with him, and the 1995 Urban Council election showed just how tough Szeto could be in pursuit of the larger cause.

The Urban Council, now abolished, was an old Hong Kong institution responsible for urban amenities.  In the early 1950s after British and Chinese conservatives scuttled Hong Kong’s first major push for political reform, restricted franchise elections were introduced  for a few seats on this council.  British-born Elsie Elliott tried her luck in the 1963 election (total turnout: 5,320 voters) and retained the seat she won then until 1995.  It became the base for her career as a one-woman crusader against corruption, injustice, poverty, and bureaucratic neglect. In the 1960s, she also campaigned energetically for political reform and developed a healthy aversion to British colonial government, which was reciprocated in ways great and small.

          For reasons she has never been able to explain convincingly, however, soon after real political reforms were introduced, she began to make common cause with pro-Beijing forces who welcomed and rewarded her new role as a critic of  Western-style democracy.  Szeto took advantage of the newly reformed election rules in 1995 that allowed a direct universal suffrage vote for all Urban Council seats.  He registered as a candidate in her consistency and proceeded to campaign against her as an “ugly old foreign woman” who spoke bad Cantonese and no longer deserved to retain the seat she had held for 30 years.   At age 81 and recently married to another long-time teacher in the district, Elsie Tu gave as good as she got while onlookers lamented the spiteful struggle among old friends.  But Szeto had no regrets and doubled back for the coup de grace defeating her again in the Legislative Council election later that same year.  Except for the brief transitional 1997-98 period, he served as a Legislative Councilor from 1985 until 2004.

The two founding fathers are nevertheless leaving a mixed legacy that reflects both their dedication and their flaws as activists and political leaders.  The combination points to an uncertain future for Hong Kong’s democracy movement partly because it still behaves too much like the fractious coalition of agitators and pressure groups Szeto began pulling together in the mid-1980s.   More important is the changed role of the Democratic Party and for that the founding fathers must bear some responsibility.

Szeto and Lee were still presiding during the bleak post-1997 years as the party struggled in vain to regain its footing — trying to adapt to the new post-colonial order without losing its 1990s role as standard-bearer for the democratic cause in the face of Beijing’s implacable opposition.  Young Turk members said they would rather return to the streets where the party began than remain in Hong Kong’s powerless councils. Eventually the elders would get fed up, say good riddance, and send the trouble-makers on their way.  But youth, energy, and activism went with them leaving the party to rest on its laurels and exploit the power of incumbency even as votes and seats won in the 1990s began to slip away.

In the early 2000s, Szeto admitted that his party could no longer compete with the money and personnel pro-Beijing loyalists were investing in their campaigns to acquire ever more seats on the lower-most District Councils.  Party leaders kept apologizing for their poor district-level work while blaming everyone but themselves as they continued to field too many superficial photo-op candidates that no one seemed capable of whipping into shape.  Szeto’s presence was no longer enough of an inspirational driving force, and the people who might have provided it were putting their talents to work elsewhere.

In this way, the Democratic Party’s loss has been the larger movement’s gain and it has experienced a major revival since the 2003 national security legislation crisis.  Those who stepped into the vanguard role at that time —   lawyers, students, journalists, younger academics, and a whole new generation of social action groups  — were so disillusioned with professional politicians that these were initially relegated to the sidelines during marches and rallies.  Today it is the 2003 vanguard generation that leads the activist wing of the political movement, while Szeto’s Democratic Party is still trying to re-gain its lost balance.

The jibe about Uncle Wah being no saint derived from last year’s bitter arguments over strategy and tactics.  With Szeto’s blessing (Martin Lee equivocated), their party not only refused to participate in the so-called “radical” referendum campaign demanding universal suffrage direct elections.  Current party leaders, again with Szeto’s blessing (but not Lee’s), then agreed to an ill-defined compromise on political reform that angered the successor generation even further.  Szeto railed at their taunts of timidity, and  his reasons were sound enough.   He was trying to conserve what he had built and feared the party would be further weakened by risky adventures.

Probably he was hoping that if only it could hold together, the Democratic Party might one day regain its fighting form. Yet his party was so far removed from its former self that most members seemed oblivious to the political implications of the vaguely-worded compromise they accepted.  Evidently, they never asked and no one ever explained —  except for another core group of the strongest who have just resigned despite Szeto’s anger when he learned of their rebellion.

In old age and ill health, Szeto failed to appreciate how his ideals are now being carried forward by others.  These are the activists, outside his party, who are following the precedent he himself set when he took the risk of invading Elsie Elliott’s territory —   in order to remind everyone of the risks she too had once taken for those same ideals on behalf of his generation.  But Hong Kong’s democracy movement cannot rely for ultimate success on ideals and daring gestures alone.  It has a formidable opponent and needs something more substantial,  like political parties with the clear vision and internal discipline necessary to produce legislative majorities.  It needs the Democratic Party that Szeto Wah and Martin Lee tried to create, not the one their successors are inheriting.

Share This