Bells Toll For Szeto Wah

Activists accuse Hong Kong officials of cozying up to China by skipping the memorial service for a democracy leader.

szetowahfuneral305.jpg A portrait and flowers are displayed at a memorial to Szeto Wah at a church in Hong Kong, Jan. 28, 2011.

Bells rang in a Hong Kong church Friday in remembrance of the 1989 military crackdown in China and the passing of democracy icon Szeto Wah, but two former student leaders of the movement were banned from entering the territory to attend the gathering.

During the service, Szeto's relatives spoke of him as a "tough guy" throughout his battle with lung cancer.

The ceremony began with the ringing of six long chimes and four short chimes from the belfry of St. Andrews Baptist Church in Kowloon's Nathan Road, symbolizing Szeto's struggle to vindicate the June 4, 1989 pro-democracy movement in China.

Chief executive Donald Tsang was notably absent, sparking comment from the officiating priest.

"His contribution in the Legislative Council lasted for more than 10 years," said pastor Chu Yiu-ming. "I imagine that this veteran politician will have left a deep impression on everyone."

"Therefore, I really don't understand why government officials have suddenly decided not to attend."

A government spokesman said Tsang and other senior officials would attend a mass memorial event scheduled on Saturday instead.

Government backdown

Democratic politician and lawyer Albert Ho said the Hong Kong government had distanced itself from Szeto with the refusal of entry permits to former 1989 student leaders Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi.

"They have clearly backed off here," Ho said at the funeral. "They have backed off because the central government has been cracking down on anyone who calls for a reassessment of June 4."

"They decided that their policies had better be in line with those of Beijing," he added.

But Ip Kwok Him, deputy chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance, said Hong Kong's Special Administrative Region (SAR) government had not necessarily made a mistake.

"It's hard to say that it was the wrong decision," he said. "I think everyone who attended Szeto Wah's funeral had to make some kind of a decision."

Democracy leader

Szeto, who died earlier this month at the age of 79, was a leading figure in Hong Kong democratic politics and the founder of the territory's largest teachers' union.

But he was best known internationally for his role in keeping alive the memory of the June 4 military bloodshed with annual rallies in Hong Kong, and for his support of the pro-democracy movement in mainland China.

His funeral has become a symbolic event for Chinese dissidents, who expressed outrage at the refusal to grant entry clearance to June 4 former student leaders Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi.

Wang and Wu'er slammed the decision at a news conference this week.

"I feel sad about Szeto Wah's death, but at the same time I also feel sad for Hong Kong, because of the death of 'one country, two systems,'" Wang told reporters in Taiwan.

Wu'er said the Hong Kong government had failed to defend Hong Kong's freedoms, guaranteed under the terms of its handover to China in 1997, and had based its decision on Beijing's wishes instead.

"It is very regretful that the Hong Kong government has made this decision," Wu'er said. "This shows a lack of respect for the departed, and also for public opinion in Hong Kong."

"It flies in the face of the principle of a high degree of autonomy and freedom for Hong Kong."

Call for explanation

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called on the Hong Kong government to explain why it banned Wang.

Local human rights groups said the matter was of public importance and that the government should explain its decision.  

The Hong Kong authorities have been known to blacklist activists and critics of China at sensitive times, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Friday's mourners, who included some of the most prominent faces in the territory's educational and political life, were shown a documentary film of Szeto's life, including many of the interviews he gave to the media.

U.S.-based Chinese sculptor Chen Weiming, who is working on a memorial sculpture in revolutionary style showing Szeto with a microphone at the head of a group of protesters, said he wanted to mark the politician's long struggle in support of democracy.

"Szeto was a fearless warrior in support of Hong Kong's freedoms," Chen said. "We should always remember his efforts and seek to follow in his footsteps."

"He was determined that no one should forget June 4, 1989."

Reported by Lin Jing and Zhong Guangzheng for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xiao Rong and Hu Hanqiang for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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