True Chinese patriot

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am

The funeral of Szeto Wah highlighted one of the central ironies of Hong Kong: the fact that the democrats who are hated by Beijing and not allowed to set foot on mainland soil were the original leaders of patriotic movements in the former British colony.

Szeto was a leading example. He and his associates were never pro-communist but they were very much Chinese patriots. And they were very different from underground Communist Party members here who supported the Beijing government.

The Communist Party claims to represent the interests of the working class, and Szeto, who led a teachers' strike in 1973 and then helped form the Professional Teachers' Union in 1974, certainly fought for the welfare of teachers.

His love of China was also evident in his other actions. He initiated a movement in the 1970s to make Chinese an official language in Hong Kong. He also promoted the use of Chinese as the medium of instruction in secondary schools even though most parents wanted their children taught in English, thinking that English proficiency was the key to a successful career.

It must have been really difficult for leaders in Beijing to depict Szeto as anything but a patriot. After all, he was a leader of the movement to defend the Diaoyu Islands, which are also claimed by Japan, and led protests to denounce changes in Japanese textbooks that whitewashed wartime atrocities in China.

Often, the British tried to tar Hong Kong activists with the communist brush since, by and large, Hong Kong society was very much anti-communist, with much of the population having fled communist rule on the mainland.

Szeto was more than once the target of a smear campaign by the British colonial authorities. In 1977-78, after an upheaval triggered by a two-day sit-in by students and teachers at the Precious Blood Golden Jubilee Secondary School over alleged large-scale misuse of school funds, a whispering campaign began that one of the teachers' leaders was a communist.

The Education Department threatened all teachers at the school with dismissal. When Szeto, as chairman of the teachers' union, tried to see the school's principal, Hilda Kwan, she snubbed him as he hadn't made an appointment. He was also reprimanded by the Education Department for not 'seeking permission' before leaving his school during working hours.

In 1985, when Szeto joined the Legislative Council after the legislature's first elections, he again showed his love of China by refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the British queen. That same year, when communist leaders in Beijing sought to widen its united front in Hong Kong, they named Szeto as well as Martin Lee Chu-ming to the Basic Law Drafting Committee, to implement the agreement in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong.

However, the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 brought that honeymoon to an abrupt end and, from then, the central government viewed him with suspicion and hostility, especially after he became chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which seeks to vindicate the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. The events of June 4, 1989, changed his life. He helped to smuggle student leaders out of the mainland and organised candlelight vigils each year in Victoria Park.

It is thus fitting that, at his funeral in St Andrew's Church, the bells tolled six long peals and four short ones to commemorate the Tiananmen Square victims.

Even though in the past year or so there has been a marked improvement in relations between Beijing and the Democratic Party, which Szeto helped to found, ultimately Beijing and Szeto found themselves on opposite sides.

This is because Szeto showed through his life and work that love of China does not equate to love of the Communist Party. This is something the party cannot accept.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1