Former Hong Kong Executive Council convenor Chung Sze-yuen, ‘godfather of local politics’, dies aged 101

  • Chung died after organ failure following a lifetime on the local political scene
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 10:40am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 9:20am

Chung Sze-yuen, a Hong Kong political icon and a pivotal figure in the fight for city residents’ rights in negotiations for their return to Chinese rule, died on Wednesday morning, two weeks after his 101st birthday.

Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum for the former Executive Council convenor, often dubbed the “godfather of local politics”, who died after a short illness at St Teresa’s Hospital in Kowloon City.

Allen Lee Peng-fei, Chung’s long-time protégé and a senior member of the city’s legislature in the 1980s, said: “He checked in to the hospital on Tuesday and was surrounded by his family when he passed away peacefully.

“It came all of a sudden. We were originally scheduled for lunch yesterday but he told me he couldn’t make it.”

On November 3, Chung, affectionately known as “Sir SY”, attended a lunch hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at Government House to mark his birthday. Some 30 guests, including former judges and politicians, attended.

The city leader said on Wednesday: “With distinguished achievements in areas including politics, education, medical care and engineering, he earned deep respect from members of the public.”

Chung, she noted, made numerous trips to Beijing and London during the talks on the city’s post-handover future, to reflect Hongkongers’ views.

“The spirit of Dr Chung’s selfless sacrifice for Hong Kong will always be in our hearts,” she said.

David Wilson, who was governor of Hong Kong from 1987 to 1992, said Chung had an outstanding career of public service.

“He was determined that the objective of continuing prosperity [after the handover] and a high degree of autonomy should be a practical reality for the people of Hong Kong,” Wilson said, adding that he benefited personally from Chung’s wisdom and common sense when he was governor.

Few can match his contributions to Hong Kong’s political transition, to his own chosen profession, engineering, and to the development of Hong Kong’s educational and medical and health services
Anson Chan, former chief secretary

“Amongst many acts of public service, the role of Sir SY in the creation of the highly successful Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and the establishment of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority stand out as great achievements,” he said.

Wilson added that Hong Kong owed an “enormous debt of gratitude” to Chung for his remarkable record of public service and commitment to Hong Kong and its people. “His warmth and strength of personality will be sadly missed,” the former governor said.

Former Hospital Authority chairman Edward Leong Che-hung, who attended the birthday celebration, said: “He was sharp and made a short impromptu speech thanking everyone for coming.”

He recalled working with Chung in the 1990s to set up the authority, which manages the city’s public hospitals.

“SY is a man of vision and I’m most impressed how he worked to retain doctors,” Leong said. “When he feels something needs to be done, he will go against all odds and do the right thing for Hong Kong.”

Chung Sze-yuen, voice of Hongkongers in colonial corridors of power

Former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang praised Chung, who was knighted in 1978, as a man of the utmost integrity who served Hong Kong selflessly. He said he worked with Chung closely in tertiary education, especially in the planning for the HKUST in the late 1980s.

“I learned a great deal from him. He always had a masterly grasp of the issues and was fair-minded,” he said.

Chung was one of a select few who served in both the legislature and Executive Council for the colonial government before Hong Kong’s eventual return to Chinese rule in 1997.

He was a senior member of the Legislative Council from 1974 to 1978 and of the Executive Council between 1980 and 1988.

In June 1984, leading a delegation to Beijing, Chung had a frank exchange with China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.

Chung told Deng that Hongkongers lacked confidence in the city’s future, to which Deng had only a blunt reply: “It is you who have no faith in the People’s Republic of China.”

In 1990 he became the founding chairman of the Hospital Authority, a body he served until 1995.

After the handover, he became convenor of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa’s Executive Council. He held the post until 1999, when Leung Chun-ying took over.

Chung retired from the Hong Kong political scene that year. After releasing a memoir in 2001, he rarely publicly commented on local politics.

The Democratic Party’s founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said nobody would dispute Chung’s contribution in the run-up to Hong Kong’s handover.

But the party’s former chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said Chung had not done enough to fight for democratic elections in the city.

Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said Chung would always be a towering figure in Hong Kong’s history.

“Few can match his contributions to Hong Kong’s political transition, to his own chosen profession, engineering, and to the development of Hong Kong’s educational and medical and health services,” she said.

In a statement, Lydia Dunn, who was an executive councillor along with Chung, praised his “deep and widespread” contribution to Hong Kong.

Recalling the time during Sino-British negotiations, Dunn said: “I saw at first hand the courageous way he reflected the concerns of Hong Kong people during those anxious times to both the British and Chinese governments. His leadership and example were inspirational to all those of us who witnessed the always honest, principled, selfless and fearless way that he spoke up for Hong Kong.”

Dunn’s husband, former attorney general Michael Thomas, similarly praised Chung.

“[Former British prime minister Margaret] Thatcher held him in the highest regard for his contributions and advice. The legacy he leaves is the example he set for others to follow in putting their talents to serve the public at large,” Thomas said.