A Hong Kong ‘democracy icon’ dies. From the Sing Tao group’s pro-Beijing/tycoon mouthpiece ‘Mary “saddened” Ma’ to the Hong Kong government, people who attacked what Szeto Wah fought for during his life now fall over themselves to mourn his parting. Even Communist Party-backed local propaganda sheet Wen Wei Po reports Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s official lament alongside the crappiest photo they can find.
As a respected and popular teachers’ union organizer who was also a Chinese scholar with deep grudges against the Japanese and the British, Szeto was exactly the sort of Hong Kong person whose endorsement Beijing needed in the years leading up to the 1997 handover. But he also had principles; he hailed the victims of the massacre in Beijing in 1989 as patriots and martyrs, and it is due to him more than any other individual that the city to this day hosts a mass-commemoration every year to remember June 4.
Thus it was that the CCP branded Szeto a subversive and barred him from setting foot over the border. (China’s continuation of the feudal practice of banishing its citizens from their own country – a hangover from the days when the people were the property of the emperor – will be highlighted yet again when the Immigration Department suspends Hong Kong’s official autonomy and kowtows, as it must, by barring exiled pro-democracy activists from entering the city for Szeto’s funeral at the end of the month.)
He wasn’t so much shunned by members of the self-described ‘elite’ that runs Hong Kong as the other way round. Some of our local oligarchs take a sort of guilty pleasure in enjoying good relations with opposition figures, especially if they cross paths in forums like the Legislative Council; there seems to be a dash of ‘radical chic’ about it, as well as a desire to play safe in case these people end up in charge one revolutionary day. Unlike his Democratic Party sidekick Martin Lee, Szeto wasn’t one to hobnob with the occasional tycoon.
He was the antithesis of the pompous, pretentious and under-qualified establishment that Beijing sided with – in effect – against the bulk of the city’s community. He happily wore shabby clothing, while they preen themselves in their grandiose uniform of cufflinks and silk ties. He read books, which is too hard, time-consuming and pointless for them to do. He prized ideas, while they crave money. For the aspiring golf-playing, Mercedes-driving set desperate for a medal or club membership he was a joke or an embarrassment, but for the more intellectual, less materialistic and numerous less well-connected he was an embodiment of Hong Kong values. A reminder, therefore, of what the shallow men who have had political and economic power handed to them on a plate are not. The fulsome praise from unlikely quarters on his death is not hypocrisy so much as shame.