Posted:  July 25, 2011


History inevitably belongs not to the past but to the future and the perspectives that come with it.    Let history be the judge, say official Chinese commentators, when someone asks an awkward question about June 4, 1989.  Hong Kong’s Democratic Party leaders said the same thing last year when trying to defend their compromise decision on political reform:  history will vindicate us.  But no one in the party was prepared for the speed with which history began re-shaping the image of one of its founding fathers and the icon of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

Following his death on January 2nd this year, Szeto Wah [Situ Hua司徒華] was eulogized by all as a leading symbol of local determination to keep one-party communist dictatorship at bay after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997  (Jan. 7 post).  Toward that end he refused to abandon the annual candlelight vigil and infuriated Chinese leaders by recalling each year their use of armed force against demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.  That event marked the end of China’s own nascent 1980s democracy movement and the beginning of Beijing’s overt antagonism to its Hong Kong counterpart.

Immediately after his death, a small storm of controversy blew up over the question of publishing his life story.   Uncle Wah, as he was known, had promised his political friends and followers when he retired from the Legislative Council in 2004 that he would finish his memoirs within a year.   But one year passed and then another, and then he was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2009.   More months passed while pan-democrats were battling over the universal suffrage campaign during 2009/10, and preparing for the summer’s June Fourth and July First events, all of which he participated in.  Only a few months later, as his health worsened, did the minds of those closest to him finally focus on the urgency of remembering, recording, and writing.   Soon after his death, Ming Pao Daily News (Jan. 4-9) printed a series of articles based on the resulting sickbed recollections as told to friends and colleagues, and the materials he had authorized for release.  Also based on the interviews, a five-part television documentary was broadcast during the week following his death and a draft of the long-promised book was reportedly being prepared as well.   The mourning period had barely begun, however, when a younger brother, Szeto Keung [Situ Qiang 司徒強], startled everyone by announcing that all publication rights belonged to him.

Unwilling to create an issue, Szeto Wah’s political heirs  —  in the Professional Teachers’ Union, Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, and the Democratic Party  —  stood aside.   They said only that any publication the family might sponsor could not, by definition, be called a memoire (hui yi lu), because the subject had died without actually writing one. They said their logic stemmed from Szeto himself who had rejected all suggestions to tell his story to others with more disciplined writing skills.  If he intended his relatives to take full charge he seems to have told no one else.   Undeterred, the family went to work and the result is The Great River Runs Ever Eastward: Szeto Wah’s Memoirs, announced with much family-focused publicity and a big splash at this year’s July book fair.*


            Why the political heirs did not merit even the courtesy of an advance copy is not clear but the cause for general consternation is.  Szeto Wah’s political origins lie, just as the old colonial rumors always had it, within Hong Kong’s leftist patriotic community.   In claiming first publication rights his family aims to establish those origins as part of his legacy in a definitive way that the political heirs could not have done even had they been so inclined because they were evidently not privy to the details.

The driving force behind publication was Szeto Keung and a sister, Szeto Sim [Situ Shan司徒嬋], two of  Szeto Wah’s  six surviving  siblings.   Brother Keung was a lifelong communist at least until his retirement, in the mid-1990s, as deputy head of the external affairs section at the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency (NCNA).  The branch was Beijing’s de facto official representative office here until 1997 and was succeeded by the central government’s Liaison Office.   Sister Sim worked at the local branch of Beijing’s China News Agency for three decades, from the early 1960s until her retirement in 1992.  Because of his position, and unlike most other NCNA officials, Szeto Keung was well-known to Hong Kong-based diplomats and foreign correspondents.  In earlier decades the two men, when asked, always denied any connection between them despite the obvious family resemblance.

After 1997, however, Szeto Keung became increasingly forthright in expressing admiration for the pro-democracy work of his brother saying only that political “sensitivities” had kept their public lives separate.  We are proud of what he has done, Szeto Keung told journalists in response to the rush of questions about the memoirs, and our intention is not to discredit his memory.   Sister Sin is more forthright.  We respect his courage in confronting political contradictions, she says.   “Really, what are you all afraid of,” she asked one questioner with reference to the heretofore unknown leftist resume they had revealed (Xinbao/Hong Kong Economic Journal, July 13, ).

They say the book is based primarily on tape recordings made by Szeto Wah in 1996, just before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, plus the TV documentary, and also on drafts he himself wrote.  But they are presenting the material as his will and claim he did not want to allow anyone else access to the tapes.  In Hong Kong’s still divided community —  where the majority, represented by Szeto Wah’s political heirs has little to do with the patriotic world his family inhabits  —  their sudden emergence as custodians of his political memory has naturally raised a flurry of suspicions and awkward questions.

The pro-Beijing press has blocked all mention of the book as befits its subject who has been regarded by Beijing as a subversive element since 1989 and banned from travelling in China.  His political heirs, embarrassed at  being sidelined in so public a way, have avoided comment and want to hear the tapes for themselves.  Everyone else is busily tapping every conceivable source in an effort to corroborate and verify.


When Szeto Wah promised to finish his memoirs a few years ago, everyone was looking forward especially to what he might reveal about June 4, 1989 and the secret operation, code named Yellow Bird,  he helped organize to smuggle protest leaders out of China afterward.  That experience is recounted in detail but has now been overshadowed by the revelations about his own leftist past.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged victorious from the 1945-49 civil war and Szeto’s early enthusiasm for the new China was never a secret.  Born in 1931, he moved with his family to Hong Kong during the 1941-45 Japanese occupation. He was involved with a left-leaning youth club during his student days and the early years of his career as an elementary school teacher.  After leading a teachers’ strike in 1973 and organizing the union a year later, he continued to portray mainland China in positive terms.  Such sentiments naturally aroused the suspicions of British security, but according to one internal assessment leaked in the early 1980s, they concluded that his independent character would keep the union safe from communist infiltration (Jan. 7 post).  The memoirs provide heretofore unknown details, filling in some of the blanks left by this familiar sketch.

Besides the youth club, his early political life included membership in the Hong Kong branch of the national New Democracy Youth League, which he joined in 1949.  He was one of the club’s leaders and it was part of the league’s unannounced united front activities.  Once the new mainland regime was fully established and its main class enemies expropriated, the “new democracy” phase gave way to overt one-party rule.   Accordingly, the party’s youth organization was renamed the Communist Youth League in 1957.  Its existence in Hong Kong was secret and part of what is still known today as the CCP’s “underground” unacknowledged presence here.

More controversial is the revelation that in 1966, after reaching the upper age limit of 35 for League membership, Szeto indicated his interest in following the usual progressive route upward by joining the CCP itself.  But the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution disrupted organization life both in Hong Kong and on the mainland resulting in the suicide, in Shanghai, of his main Hong Kong NCNA contact.  Factional differences had resulted in Szeto’s departure from the youth club in 1960, his 1966 initiative lapsed, and he felt himself abandoned by the party.

Later, in the 1980s when Hong Kong and Beijing began planning for 1997 reunification, union leader Szeto met regularly with NCNA officials, which was not unusual.  They were just then “coming out” themselves, getting to know local leaders from many circles in preparation for 1997.  According to Szeto’s memoirs, however, he reported his interest in contesting the first, indirect, 1985 Legislative Council election to his new NCNA contacts and received their support.  He claims further that they included him among possible candidates for the post of Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive.  He was also asked at that time, by NCNA director Xu Jiatun  [許家屯], to join the CCP but turned down the offer.

In his own memoirs, published in the early 1990s, Xu wrote that Szeto had once asked to join the party but told Xu he had changed his mind after reading the works of party leader Chen Yun.**  These were published in the mid-1980s.  Szeto explains the Chen Yun anecdote along with the real reason he turned down the offer, namely, the way he had earlier been shunted aside by the party without explanation (River, pp. 101-4).

Szeto then severed all links secret and otherwise with mainland representatives in 1989 and the story resumes its more familiar course.  Why he would be content to leave the impression that the only reason he refused to join the party in the mid-1980s was his own personal experience is not clear.  His family has reiterated this reason for his disaffection in their public statements, leaving readers to speculate about how he might have reacted to Tiananmen had he been treated with the respect he thought he deserved.  Would he have defected to America like his would-be sponsor Xu Jiatun did after 1989?  Or would he have fallen in behind the post-crackdown order along with most other members of Hong Kong’s patriotic community including his own relations?

Szeto Wah says only that his youthful belief in communism gave way to a new set of convictions.  He then goes on to state his understanding of democracy in terms that have set Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans apart from their pro-Beijing opponents since Szeto himself began campaigning, also in the mid-1980s, for:  the right to universal suffrage and the right of everyone to elect a government of their own choosing but one that will guarantee freedom, human rights, and the rule of law.

Along with his new convictions, he also maintained his fighting spirit to the end.  Lest anyone think that his last “I love everyone” posthumous New Year’s message meant all was forgiven, the book ends on the same discordant note that marked his final appearance at last year’s July First march.  The chapter titled “Who Betrayed Hong Kong’s Democracy?” is an answer to the bannered questions dominating that march.  He provides a robust defense of the 2010 compromise on political reform and proclaims Albert Ho to be “the best chairman the Democratic Party ever had” for making the compromise decision.

Responding to a journalist’s question, one family member said he thought the knowledge that his uncle was a man with a pro-Beijing past  would probably not have much of a negative impact on his current pro-democracy image.  Probably the memoirs will have a greater impact on the younger brother’s reputation for the way he elbowed aside Szeto Wah’s political heirs — much as the party had done to him all those years ago.   But the 500-page book will take some time to absorb.  It has only just gone on sale and the authenticity of the tapes, as well as his deathbed instructions about revealing their contents, remain to be verified.  No doubt the best of the responses are yet to come.

*Dajiang dong qu:  Situ Hua huiyilu [大江東去:司徒華囘憶錄].  Hong Kong:  Oxford University Press, in Chinese.   As of Nov., 2012 there are no plans for an English translation.

** Xu Jiatun,  Xianggang huiyilu (Hong Kong Memoirs), vol. I, pp. 149-50, in Chinese only.


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