Secret agents sent to spy on teachers' union had change of heart

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


Szeto Wah, who had a close history with the Chinese Communist Party, was vigilant against the communists' attempts to infiltrate the Professional Teachers' Union, which he founded in 1974.

In the first few years of the union's establishment, six or seven members of its executive committee were undercover agents sent by the Communist Party, he reveals in his just-published memoir. 'They aimed at gathering intelligence and forming their own group within the union in the hope of eventually seizing power,' he writes.

In 1973, Szeto spearheaded Hong Kong's first territory-wide teachers' strike in protest at a government decision to cut teachers' salaries by 15 per cent. He founded the union the next year and saw it grow into one of the city's biggest trade unions, now with 82,000 members. He served as the union's president until 1990.

'However, many communists who infiltrated the union were actually good guys, and they knew well they could not sabotage our organisation after finding out that we wholeheartedly fought for the welfare of teachers,' he writes.

Szeto writes that Law Ping, who joined the union in the early 1980s and subsequently became a vice-president, admitted candidly before he died of cancer in 2005 that he was a member of the Communist Party.

In October 2010, Szeto told Law's wife, Lai Fung-kuen, that he knew the couple were communists. 'But I know you are good persons and haven't done any bad thing,' Szeto said.

Lai, a member of the union's executive committee from 1978 to 1998, could not be reached for comment.

Au Pak-kuen, chief treasurer of the Professional Teachers' Union and one of its co-founders, said he did not know whether Law and Lai were communists but he agreed they were good people.

'Of course we should be vigilant against infiltration by communists. But there is no need to be scared about it and let it affect our normal work,' Au said.

The union was one of the 10 organisations listed for political surveillance by the Standing Committee on Pressure Groups, a secret task force set up by the Hong Kong government in 1977 to monitor groups it felt were 'subversive'.

The committee's report on its inquiries noted that the union was the target for the communists' infiltration. It described Szeto as an 'ambitious and decisive person', and said the communists' attempts to control the union would fail so long as he remained as its leader.