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Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah dies at 79

January 2, 2011 |  7:59 am

Wah Veteran Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah, a leading campaigner for the victims of Beijing's 1989 crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square and a voice for mainland dissidents, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was 79.

A teacher and a former primary school principal, Szeto started his political career organizing fellow teachers, building Hong Kong's Professional Teachers' Union into one of the territory's most powerful unions.

But he is best known as a democracy advocate. Szeto was shocked by Beijing's military suppression of the pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen, in which at least several hundred people were killed.

Along with others he organized the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Movements in China. The group, which he headed until his death, became a key advocate for both the victims of Tiananmen and for mainland dissidents jailed by the Chinese government.

The group continued to criticize the Tiananmen crackdown and called on Beijing to apologize, even after Hong Kong became a semiautonomous Chinese territory in 1997. Every June 4 the alliance hosts a candlelight vigil to mourn the victims which typically draws tens of thousands of people.

Chinese officials still consider the 1989 protests a “counterrevolutionary” movement.

Szeto was widely admired by the student leaders of the Tiananmen protests and other supporters of the movement. His death drew emotional tributes from fellow activists.

“I am very, very sad. Uncle Wah was a spiritual leader for me and for the democracy movement,” exiled student leader Wang Dan told Hong Kong's Cable TV.

Szeto, who never married, was also active in Hong Kong's own democracy campaign. He was a founding member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong, which later became the Democratic Party, the territory's leading opposition party. He retired from the Hong Kong legislature in 2004.

His legacy was slightly tarnished last year when he backed the Democratic Party's decision to vote for limited reforms for Hong Kong's half-elected legislature that were endorsed by Beijing, a move that drew a huge backlash from hard-line activists. Szeto was badly heckled when he attended Hong Kong's annual pro-democracy protest march last July 1.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Szeto Wah in 2009. Credit: Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images