Memorial For Democracy Icon

Chinese activists in exile expect trouble entering Hong Kong to attend the event.

SzetoWah305.jpg Szeto Wah protests the rejection of a motion condemning the Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong, May 27, 2009.

Activists in Hong Kong are planning a large-scale public memorial for late democracy campaigner Szeto Wah, who died at the weekend, amid fears that fellow activists from overseas will be barred from attending the event.

Szeto founded the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, a group which has continued to mourn the victims of the June 4, 1989 military crackdown, in the face of Beijing's displeasure.

He died in hospital on Jan. 2, following a long battle with lung cancer.

"We are planning to hold a mass memorial event [for Szeto Wah]," Alliance vice-chairman Richard Tsoi said on Monday.

Szeto told reporters in April, while battling lung cancer: “I will continue to attend the events organized by the Alliance, even if I’m in a wheelchair."

Under the terms of the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the territory was promised separate political and judicial systems, together with continuing freedoms of speech and association.

Many in the territory say those freedoms are slowly being eroded, as a powerful business elite with strong connections in China pulls the Special Administrative Region government closer and closer to Beijing.

Tsoi said that the work of the Alliance would continue, however.

"Of course the continuing work of the Alliance is even more important, including events to mark the 22nd anniversary of the June 4 military crackdown and the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution," he said.

"These are two tasks which we are looking to accomplish in the near future."

'Uncle Wah'

Szeto, known affectionately in Hong Kong as "Uncle Wah," is best known for spearheading the call to reappraise the student-led pro-democracy movements of 1989, which the authorities suppressed using military force, including tanks and machine guns.

Many of the student leaders of that era fled overseas, while dozens of others were handed heavy jail terms for their part in the movement.

Officials have characterized the demonstrations as "political turmoil," charging participants with "counterrevolutionary activity," and have ignored calls from a vocal minority of activists for a public reckoning with the crackdown.

No one has yet compiled reliable figures of the number who died, but the number may be in the hundreds, or possibly thousands.

A handful of protesters marched through Hong Kong's central business district on Monday, calling for fellow pro-democracy campaigners from overseas to be allowed to attend the memorial event.

"A person's death is a major event," pro-democracy activist and legislator Leung Kwok-hung, known as "Long Hair," told reporters. "It is reasonable that pro-democracy figures would want to come to Hong Kong for the memorial."

"It is also a basic human right," Leung said, calling on the immigration authorities to allow pro-democracy activists to enter the territory, which was handed back to China in 1997 after a century as a British colony.

Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan, who teaches at a Taiwan university, and Wu'er Kaixi, another prominent Tiananmen activist also based in Taiwan, said they fear being denied entry to Hong Kong, which increasingly follows Beijing's lead in its immigration policy.

Meanwhile, the pro-democracy Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) set up a public condolence book in the commercial district of Causeway Bay.

"Your contribution will always remain with me," wrote one visitor.

Media muted

PTU member Au Pak-kuen said the news of Szeto's death had come as a shock, in spite of his long illness.

"When we heard the news, we felt it was quite sudden, because we thought he still had a bit of time left," Au said.

"We had even planned to go and visit Uncle Wah in hospital this week."

Newspapers and online media in mainland China made scant mention of Szeto's passing, however.

A resident of Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong and receives much of its television and radio broadcasts, said he could not find any reference to Szeto behind the complex system of blocks, filters, and censorship guidelines known by Chinese as the "Great Firewall."

"We can't see anything about that in mainland China," said the man, identified by his surname, Ho. "Even the Hong Kong news had dropped it when they broadcast it yesterday."

"But I would say that apart from in Guangdong, where more people follow Hong Kong news, most people in mainland China wouldn't even know who Szeto Wah was."

Hong Kong's immigration department said in a statement that it would make any decision on entry based on "all relevant factors and circumstances."

The memorial is scheduled for late January.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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