Struggles with activism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong has few political giants but Szeto Wah was one of them. His death reminds us that political activism is not quite as new as some imagine, yet attitudes towards politics here often remain bizarre.

Szeto's intense political involvement stretches back at least five decades. He combined the unusual talents of idealism, organisational ability and a strong sense of pragmatism which, in a normal political system, would have seen him gain official recognition. Ironically, it only came once when the central government appointed Szeto a member of the Basic Law Drafting Committee alongside Martin Lee Chu-ming. Both democrats, unsurprisingly, resigned from their posts in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The hard men in Beijing appointed Szeto because they appreciated his political significance, even though they disliked his ideas. The British colonial government and the special administrative region government, however, could never see beyond his opposition to their policies and so preferred to shun him.

They failed to appreciate that he was quite capable of tactical compromise, as he showed in supporting last year's political reform package. But even this left the government wary because, unlike its usual allies, he did not do so in pursuit of personal gain but out of principle.

What his life's work demonstrates is that, in Hong Kong, real politics is conducted at the highest levels of principle, miles apart from the horde of office seekers who dabble in politics precisely in order to gain office.

When the British ruled, Szeto was a staunch defender of the Chinese language and was regarded as a dubious leftist by the colonial regime, which wrongly assumed that those with a social democrat perspective were inevitably drawn towards the Chinese Communist Party. The colonialists' mistake was mirrored by that of the communists who were quick to brand Szeto anti-Chinese, although it would be hard to find a stauncher Chinese patriot in Hong Kong.

He was, however, most certainly an enemy of one-party rule, though he was a somewhat authoritarian figure in the way he ran organisations he had helped to create. This authoritarianism sometimes made Szeto an uncomfortable collaborator, but even allies who were uncomfortable with him would concede that he had superb political instincts and the determination to put ideas into action. That is why he led some of the biggest political demonstrations Hong Kong has ever seen; while faint hearts doubted, Szeto had an acute understanding of how the people would respond at crucial moments.

It is premature to talk about Szeto's legacy but when Hong Kong is finally able to elect its own government and when the Chinese leadership finally faces up to a truthful reckoning for the events of 1989, it would be most surprising if Szeto's role in these developments were not fully recognised.

Meanwhile, politics in Hong Kong continues to be ever so slightly bizarre as exemplified by an event taking place today when the Civic Party elects its new leadership. The fact that contested elections for senior positions are being held has been seized upon as evidence of a power struggle. And, in the columns of this newspaper, it has been argued that because some contenders for office were helping each other, this constituted 'hypocrisy', going 'against the spirit of democracy'.

Although the writer is a man of the world, his remarks suggest just how far Hong Kong is removed from experiencing genuine political activity. The idea that like-minded candidates should not run on what amounts to a joint ticket, with shared ideas, is only plausible to those with little experience of party elections. And, when the existence of a contested election is portrayed as equivalent to a power struggle, it emphasises Hong Kong's pitiful lack of familiarity with democratic elections.

It is precisely in organisations favouring democratic government that open and fair elections need to be held. Only those who cling to the wreckage of the functional constituency system and other attempts to undermine universal suffrage are likely to believe that allowing people to elect their leaders somehow produces instability.

The weary old canard of equating democracy with instability is the special lie reserved for use in one-party states. Their rulers are confident that the pursuit of democracy is a waste of time. Seen through this warped prism, Szeto's life work can be viewed as a series of hopeless causes. Those who see it this way are the kind of people who were confident that they would never see women getting the vote or observe enslaved people throwing off their shackles. History, however, is often kind to people who are as 'unrealistic' as Szeto Wah.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur