Obituary: Szeto Wah, 1931 – 2011

Szeto Wah (司徒華, Si Tuhua) was born in Hong Kong on February 28, 1931. The city of his ancestors was Kaiping in Guangdong province. For forty years, he worked as a teacher and a school principal. He was  a functional-constituency member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) for the Teaching constituency from 1985 to 1991, and a democratically-elected member for the Kowloon East constituency from 1991 through 2004. He was  a member of the Democratic Party, and chairman of the Hong Kong in Support of Patriotic [update: Democratic] Movements of China organization (香港市民支援愛國民主運動聯合會), to which the HK Standard referred as subversive in 2010.

He was a principled but hard-headed democrat, steadfast, but skeptical of high-handed idealism.

In July 2009, the League of Social Democrats (LSD) proposed resignations by pan-democrats from LegCo. Their chairman said that this would “give people the chance to say they don’t want any undemocratic reform proposals short of full universal suffrage by 2012″. The Civic Party (公民黨) sided with the LSD. So, initially, did veteran Democratic Party politician Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱铭).

In a discussion of this referendum of sorts which in which Jimmy Lai, the founder of Next Media apparently played a driving role, Szeto pledged support for all pan-democrats who wanted to go ahead with the plan, but advised the Democratic Party not to become part of such a move. In the end, according to the HK Standard, his stance seemed to have had a moderating influence on other Democratic Party leaders, including Martin Lee, who stood by the original idea, but still called for re-thinking the plan across the pan-democratic parties: “At first I thought the democrats were likely to support the plan to stage a de facto referendum but it seems more people are against the idea.”

A low turnout in the May 2010 by-elections which followed the five resignations which had been part of the plan seemed to vindicate Szeto’s position.

But in the end, both the Democatic Party and the more “radical” democratic parties were in a position to claim shares in the progress towards universal suffrage. In June 2010, apparently due to some extent to a less-than-convincing televised debate with barrister and opposition leader Audrey Eu (余若薇) of the Civic Party, Hong Kong’s chief executive Donald Tsang decided to overcome contradictions by seeking common ground with the opposition. He made his announcement of inclusion of suggestions from the Democratic Party of June 21, 2010.

An occasional pro-democracy commenter on this blog, Taihanasie, lauded the Democratic Party’s role in  what was after all a step, even if only a small one,  forward towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The Democrats had managed to see through five additional functional, but elected by the public members in LegCo. On the other hand, as district councillors were to nominate the candidates, pro-Beijing interests would still have some degree of say in who held the new legislative posts. Tsang saved face, Taihan argued, and so did Beijing, while the Democrats had looked reasonable and more likely to gain more support from the mainstream in Hong Kong:

My own thought on this is that the Democrats played their hand brilliantly. They know that Beijing does not want to lose support in Hong Kong because such support is essential to maintaining the aura of success that surrounds the One Country, Two Systems model. In the face of a hugely influential Beijing, the Democrats knew when to hold their ground, and they won concessions.

Liu Xia (劉霞), Liu Xiaobo‘s wife, invited Szeto to attend this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Norway, but Szeto was nearing death. He asked Lee Cheuk-yan, his vice chairman of the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, to attend instead.

“The fight never ends for Szeto”, Mary Ma wrote in February 2010. But at the time, everyone already knew that it would have to end for him, soon.

Szeto Wah died from lung cancer at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Shatin on Sunday afternoon local time, aged 79.


Brushstrokes of Spring (see pictures 4 and 5), Learning Cantonese, February 1, 2008
Szeto Wah on Democracy, Charles Mok / Youtube, July 27, 2007

Szeto Wah, Political Activist in HK, Dies at 79, New York Times, January 2, 2011

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