It has been a bad week for Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists. First came China's call for 'collaborators' in the escape of dissident Wang Xizhe to be 'brought to justice'. Then, there was uproar at the seemingly unambiguous statement by Chinese Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that June 4 memorial demonstrations would not be allowed after next year's handover. Not that any of this will affect Szeto Wah, the 'subversive' head of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China - because officially or not, the Alliance 'has never helped any dissident flee China'. Hold on a minute. The alliance has never what? 'We have never helped dissidents flee China,' said poker-faced Mr Szeto. 'If you say we have I can sue you for libel. 'I did not even know how this name Yellowbird [the codename given to the remarkable underground operation that has helped smuggle more than 130 of China's leading dissidents to the West] came about. I checked and found it originated from a Chinese poem.' And while Mr Qian rules out 'personal attacks' on Beijing leaders, Mr Szeto remains unbowed. He is unswerving, too, in his belief that it is within the alliance's rights to hold June 4 memorials in Victoria Park after 1997. 'I am a stubborn person,' said the seasoned democracy fighter. Expressionless, like a fortune-teller rambling on about someone else's star chart, Mr Szeto nevertheless gave predictions on how China could 'reward' him for his stubbornness. 'There are three possibilities,' he said. 'I may become the next Han Dongfang : once I leave Hong Kong, I will never be allowed back in. 'Or Beijing may have me tailed and my telephone bugged. 'Or Beijing may turn me into the next Wei Jingsheng , lock me up for 14 years and then for another 14 years. 'Is it worth it? Certainly. There are things in life that need to be done, so you go ahead and do them.' The year 1997 will place the seasoned unionist-turned-legislator (and other fellow Democrats) firmly where he once belonged: in the hard place at the heart of the social movement. When democracy is all but buried, with the Democrats thrown off the legislative through-train, Mr Szeto's role will be to show the Beijing regime that he is alive and kicking. 'There are always things to do when one is out of Legco. The question is whether you do them. 'I may be giving talks. I may be writing articles for newspapers.' But above all, he is in Hong Kong to stay because, said Mr Szeto, 'to live is to make a certain person's world less perfect'. Has he no fears? 'Li Peng I fear not; so what else is there to be fearful of?' But, with the gauntlet thrown down, Mr Szeto has not forgotten another important trait that allows a warrior to keep fighting: caution. It might even be said that caution governs Mr Szeto's thinking. The leader of the pro-democracy group branded 'subversive' by Beijing has never allowed his name to be linked to any 'smuggling' activities. On the day news was leaked of Wang's dramatic escape to Hong Kong, Mr Szeto was on TV. Straight-faced as usual, he said only: 'I read about Wang's escape in the newspapers.' Perhaps he did. Perhaps not. In fact, a veil of silence was so effectively drawn over the alliance's involvement (or non-involvement) in any smuggling activities that an alliance member simply advised: 'Don't ask. You will never get an answer.' When reminded of the infamous 1989 People's Daily commentary, which, apart from branding the alliance president (Szeto) and its then vice-president (Martin Lee Chu-ming) as subversives, also accused 'some' Hong Kong people of establishing underground passages to smuggle dissidents out of China, Mr Szeto said: 'The commentary did not name anyone. 'All I have said is that it is worthwhile to rescue these people. The actual job is up to those who have the ability. Not us. We don't have the ability.' According to Mr Szeto, caution is not something that can be dispensed with. In his words, one 'should always look at the traffic lights before crossing the road, and not charge blindly' because 'we must look at results. We must see things from the effect viewpoint'. Of course, 'it is up to you' to judge whether the alliance is capable of achieving results. But nobody should doubt Mr Szeto's great organisational skills. When he was leader of the Professional Teachers' Union (a 62,000-strong union that he founded and a post he occupied for 16 years), he earned the reputation of being 'the government's most feared unionist'. The union, now under fellow Democrat Cheung Man-kwong whom Mr Szeto groomed as his successor, is still Hong Kong's 'wealthiest'. It owns two properties with a combined gross floor area of 38,000 sq ft, and has capital estimated at more than $200 million. 'We have a supermarket, two dental clinics, a medical laboratory, two optical centres . . . We go into insurance; have 100 paid staff; publish regularly more than six periodicals. When we branched out into car insurance, we attracted a lot of college lecturers. 'It was my idea to start a supermarket. How else are you to physically keep in touch with your members? We are talking about thousands of people. Is it possible to organise activities with thousands attending routinely? What would that have involved? 'If I were not a unionist, I could become a successful businessman. 'But you have to work very hard to get results. I used to go to rally venues such as Victoria Park and draw up maps myself. 'Where to hang up banners? Where should participants sit? If a rally were to start at 3pm, I would visit the venue at 3pm the day before to get the details, however minor. You need to know, for instance, from which direction the sun was shining. 'The last thing I wanted was to have the sun shining into people's eyes so they could not see what was going on on the stage. 'Once you have a grand plan, you divide people into groups and you delegate. Rallies and demonstrations are not difficult to organise. The difficult bit is to estimate the number of people who will turn up.' Energy levels have naturally diminished as he gets older. At 65, his health has betrayed him a couple of times. He was in hospital for eight days with backache following exhausting electioneering activities in 1991. (Troubled with back pain, the retired primary school headmaster, who used to chain-smoke Marlboro, has since quit smoking and taken to swimming). But Mr Szeto can still recall victory margins in elections as far back as 1985 ('I believe in exercising the mind through reading'). He was the strategist at the head of the teachers' group that humiliated the Government with a two-day strike in 1973. Since then, his skills in mass-mobilisation and meticulous planning have been demonstrated repeatedly. And Mr Szeto has never met his Waterloo in union confrontations with the authorities, nor in elections. 'I have never lost. When I told fellow Democrats of my decision to take on Elsie Tu in the Urban Council poll last year, they were shocked. They asked me if I would be able to take failure. 'My idea was even if I lost, I could come back to fight her in Legco. If I lost, my campaigners would be in good fighting spirit.' By forcing voters to choose between himself and Mrs Tu, who was backed by the pro-China machine, Mr Szeto put his political beliefs and strategy for dealing with China to his constituents for a stamp of approval. Twice he succeeded. Mr Szeto said he felt no qualms about taking on Mrs Tu, because politics 'are not charity'. He was raised as a fighter. His mother died when he was 11 and he was brought up by his dock-worker father. Although the third of 10 children, he was left to look after his younger siblings as his elder brother and sister had long left for North America. Not surprisingly, from a psychologist's point of view, he grew to be a leader. He was self-sufficient even at a young age. He said of his mother's death: 'There were so many children in my family, so I did not get a lot of her love anyway. 'I was saddened by her death but I cannot say I was heartbroken. And from another viewpoint, because I did not have a mother to fuss over me, I could go ahead and do things.' Mr Szeto described himself as 'shy, and introverted'. His critics might say he lacks warmth. He is known affectionately as 'Wah Suk' or Uncle Szeto to his voters and contemporaries but he remains 'Mr Szeto' to staff at the Professional Teachers' Union. 'He is not trained in social niceties. He doesn't say thank you, and can be quite blunt,' said a union staffer, 'but we are used to his style. He is a very serious man.' But that Mr Szeto does not seem likable does not mean to say he lacks charisma. 'He may not look as accessible as Martin [Lee]. He doesn't have an obvious sense of humour and he can get cross and give you an earful when you do something wrong. But when he gives his views, we do sit up and listen,' said a Democrat. Mr Szeto said that he did not come from a family filled with warmth and he felt more a sense of duty towards his younger siblings than love. One of his younger brothers, Szeto Keung, is a former deputy head at Xinhua (the New China News Agency). 'He left the family when I was still a student. We hardly see each other now. 'He did not discuss his decision with us. He was young; he just left the family to join Xinhua.' It might even be said the elder Mr Szeto, attracted to Marxism at a young age, could have returned to China to serve the motherland if not for his sense of duty towards his siblings. He once said he never married because he did not get round to it. He still loves the motherland, and Chinese culture. But he said: 'June 4 shows the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party; that no challenge to its absolute power is allowed. 'Allen Lee [Peng-fei] once asked me why I did not change course. He said during June 4, many people had bet on the wrong side. 'I told him I never gamble. The conversation was kept rather short.'