Hong Kong Loses a Patriot

Hong Kong is awash with elite crocodile tears in the wake of the death from lung cancer of Szeto Wah, 79.

All kinds of dignitaries, headed by Chief Executive Donald Tsang and Chief Secretary Henry Tang, and including media owned by the families of assorted former drug and cigarette runners, who rushed to praise a man whose popularity stemmed from a selfless career in pursuit of patriotic and democratic objectives. The career of "Uncle Wah" has long stood in sharp contrast to the opportunism displayed by Sir Donald and the bureaucrats and tycoons whose only compass has been their advancement up the ladders of power and wealth.

Not for Szeto the British honors which Tsang & Co used to accept so eagerly. Not for him the baubles named Bauhinia awards now handed out by Sir Donald to those deemed sufficiently obedient by the Chinese Communist Party’s representatives to be considered "patriotic."

This was a man who never wavered in the pursuit of combining Chinese patriotism with democracy and the interests of ordinary people. A primary school teacher, his commitment and organizational gifts led him in 1974 to found the Professional Teachers Union. From that platform, among many other liberal and patriotic causes, he pushed first for equal rights for the Chinese language in a government and legal system in which English was always deeded the official version of events and documents.

He pushed too for direct popular representation in the legislature and for the values of a liberal and democratic system.

Initially his patriotism was acknowledged by Beijing, which in 1985 appointed him to the Committee in charge of drafting the Basic Law, the mini-constitution by which the territory has been governed since the 1997 handover to China.

Most of the businessmen and professionals on the committee who had once wept at the thought of being abandoned by the Brits to the tender mercies of Beijing now agreed to almost anything Beijing proposed to obstruct democratization. But Szeto proved awkward. Here was a man whose record of opposing both British colonialism and the sycophancy of the local Communist party surrogates to any orders from Beijing was without equal.

But it was June 1989, the Tiananmen massacre, which truly showed his commitment. The proven patriot denounced the suppression, resigned from the Basic Law drafting committee and founded the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. As a result he was barred from visiting the mainland, a bar which remained till his death.

He remained head of the Alliance, never missed a June 4 vigil and last year commenting "I believe democracy will be realized in China although I may not get a chance to witness it."

He was in 1990 a founder of the United Democrats which subsequently became the Democratic Party. He was the teachers’ representative on the Legislative Council after functional constituencies were created in 1985 and he was directly elected in 1991 when the first direct elections for some seats were held. Significantly he trounced Elsie Elliot Tu, a British failed missionary who made her name as a fighter against corruption and colonialism but became, and remains, an apologist for Beijing and its Hong Kong proxies.

He was a member of Legco until retiring in 2004 but remained active as an icon of democracy in Hong Kong and the mainland.

His departure, though not unexpected a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer, finds the democracy movement in Hong Kong enjoying wide support but lacking leadership. The government is even trying to exploit Szeto’s death by emphasizing his support for some very small steps towards democracy introduced in 2010 but opposed by many democrats as almost meaningless. In fact Szeto only agreed to them very reluctantly and never showed the slightest sign of wavering from his principles.

The broader democracy movement, for which Szeto has for years been the spiritual leader, is split. The Democratic Party remains the largest component but was divided over its acceptance of last year’s constitutional changes. It has name and organization but its leadership is competent rather than inspirational.

The Civic Party enjoys support among many middle class Hong Kong people but its leadership by a self-regarding clique of barristers limits its potential. The most radical group, the League of Social Democrats, has a solid following both among the underclass and those believing the other democrats are simply too polite to get anywhere. But its tactics limit its appeal and it too suffers internal problems.

All in all Szeto’s death is a huge loss not just for Hong Kong but for all those who believe that the territory can and could contribute more to China than self-serving bureaucrats, party apparatchiks and "greed is good" actual or aspirant tycoons. Only a few months before his death he dismissed as "crocodile tears" an appeal by Regina Ip, a legislator with close Beijing connections, that he be allowed to return to the mainland where he was born.

He could easily spot the hypocrisy of this self-serving bureaucrat turned united front politician who now pretends to like democracy.

The praise from Tsang, Tang, Ip and others must be making his bones quiver in rage as they await cremation. Some of his ashes will be sprinkled on Hong Kong soil, some on the mainland – if they are allowed back. While the crocodile tears for Szeto are being shed by Tsang & Co., the government will be barring overseas activists who were inspired by him from attending his funeral.