Burning faith that turned cold

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2011, 12:00am


For many pan-democrats, recent revelations that Szeto Wah, the revered democracy stalwart, had ties with the Chinese Communist Party was a huge shock.

But the connection becomes easy to understand when one reads Szeto's posthumous autobiography, The Endless River Eastward Flows: A Memoir, which went on sale this week.

In its 507 pages, the late Szeto relates how he embraced communist and socialist ideals as a young man, only to see his hopes destroyed as the party took power and turned increasingly dictatorial.

It was a story common to his generation of left-leaning intellectuals who were educated in the 1950s.

Szeto writes that his memoir details the process of 'how my ideals were dashed and my efforts to rebuild my new ideals' - the fight for social justice and democracy in Hong Kong, as well as a democratic China.

'My memoir aims at summing up my experience so as to prevent 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong' degenerate into 'party members ruling Hong Kong'', says Szeto in the book, written in Chinese.

Szeto, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, died of lung cancer in January at the age of 79.

In 1941, as Japan bombed Hong Kong, he and his poor family fled the colony for their ancestral home in Kaiping , Guangdong. He had a strong desire for a free, democratic and prosperous China after witnessing the atrocities inflicted by the Japanese army in Kaiping.

In the late 1940s he became acquainted with leftist intellectuals such as Chen Zhemin, son of the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu, and Liu Yat-yuen, an editor of a students' journal who in 1949 recommended he join the New Democracy Youth League, the forerunner of the Communist Youth League.

'I often listened to their discussion about the country's affairs, particularly how corrupt the ruling Kuomintang was and the Communist Party's efforts to fight for democracy. I came under their influence and believed the Communist Party offered the best hope for saving the nation. I gradually placed my trust in communism,' Szeto writes.

By the time the People's Republic of China was founded in October 1949, he said: 'I thought my hope for a prosperous, democratic and free China had been realised at that time.'

In April 1949, Szeto and another four left-leaning students co-founded the Hok Yau Club, a student group controlled by the local branch of the Communist Party. In its early stages, membership of the group comprised mainly students from prestigious non-leftist schools such as Queen's College, Diocese Boys' School and St Paul's Co-educational College. Szeto, who was studying at Queen's College, enjoyed a good reputation among his fellow members.

As part of the Communist Party's underground front in Hong Kong, members of the club were required to study the works of Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. Szeto was so dedicated to his work at the club that he handled its affairs during lessons at Queen's College. He had once planned to study at a mainland university after graduating from Queen's College in 1951 but dropped the idea because he had to support his family.

'As non-leftist students formed the backbone of the Hok Yau Club, people would not suspect students groomed by the club were left-leaning. It was more convenient to distribute them to various strata of the community and even infiltrate into the colonial government,' he writes.

But local communist leaders became suspicious of his popularity and of the diverging views inside the group. From the mid-1950s, Szeto realised that his superiors in the local branch of the party intended to weaken the influence of students from non-leftist colleges in the club by bringing in students from leftist schools.

He left the Hok Yau Club in 1960, two years after his allies were purged by local party bosses. Szeto was appointed the honorary chief editor of a left-leaning children's journal but it folded after a few months.

He felt that he had been abandoned by the local branch of the party and realised he was simply a tool being manipulated by the communists. He had serious misgivings about them in the wake of the Anti-Rightist Movement, which began on the mainland in 1957 and resulted in the persecution of hundreds of thousands of intellectuals.

Looking to clarify his status, Szeto in 1966 asked Au Yeung Shing-chiu, the club's leader who was responsible for maintaining contact between the communists and himself, what they planned to do about his membership of the league (the age limit was 25) and how they intended to handle his relationship with the communists.

Au Yeung told Szeto, who was 35 at the time, that the age limit had been raised to 45. But he was not convinced, so he complained to Meng Qiujiang, a core member of the Communist Party's Hong Kong and Macau Works Committee, that the local branch of the party had dumped him after 1960.

Meng agreed to follow up on his case but jumped to his death in Shanghai in 1967 and Szeto abandoned contact with the communists. In 1984, he rejected an invitation by Xu Jiatun, director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency from 1983 to 1990, to join the Communist Party.

'The revolutionary ideals espoused by the Chinese Communist Party had attracted many ardent youth, including me, and many made sacrifices for the revolutionary cause,' Szeto continues.

'I had a thorough understanding of the true colours of the Communist Party following the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1989.

'I realise that loving the country is not tantamount to loving a political party, a regime or a leader. It's a matter of loving your compatriots and the nation's traditions.'

Szeto was not alone in having his ideals dashed. Eric Chou, a veteran journalist who worked for the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao from the 1940s to 1961, was imprisoned for four years after being cajoled into returning to the mainland to meet premier Zhou Enlai. Chou, a communist sympathiser, was jailed and 're-educated' because he was suspected of spying for Western countries.

He was released and allowed to return to Hong Kong in 1957. In 1963, two years after fleeing to the UK, he published a memoir detailing his plight in a mainland jail, entitled A Man Must Choose.

Yip Yung-chi, a Hok Yau Club member persuaded by Szeto to study at a university in northeast China in the 1950s, died after being a victim of the purges during the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957. Yip had been targeted because of his wealthy family background.

Johnny Lau Yui-siu, political commentator and a former journalist at pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po, said that in the 1940s and 50s it was natural for young people who looked forward to a better country to be sympathetic towards the Communist Party.

'The Communist Party was seen as a progressive force at the time,' Lau said. 'It only became corrupt and authoritarian after the seizure of power.

'Szeto's link with the Communist Party shouldn't undermine his position in history and people's respect for him. Although Szeto's hope for the communists faded, he never gave up and continued to fight for democratisation in Hong Kong and the mainland.'

Au Pak-kuen, who partnered Szeto Wah to found the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) in 1974, said: 'There was a saying among university students and educated young people in the 1950s that those who did not support the Communist Party were reactionaries. That's why I am not surprised about Szeto's link with the Communist Party.'

'Szeto's emphasis on discipline and a frugal life for himself, and care for his colleagues was in line with the style of a genuine communist,' said Au, who had known Szeto since 1971. 'His character and working style fit into the needs as the leader of groups, such as the PTU, in their embryonic stage. I never cared much about Szeto's ties with the communists because I think it was not important at all.'