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Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto dies at age 79

May 2, 2013

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 by trade, 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, like many Hong Kongers, 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.

It 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.

"The greatest achievement of Uncle Wah is that he passed on his spirit before his death. You can tell from (the youth turnout at) the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown that the younger generation has remembered the event," said Wang, who currently teaches history at a Taiwanese university.

Another exiled student leader living in Taiwan, Wuer Kaixi, said Szeto was involved in efforts to help the Tiananmen protesters escape from China after the crackdown.

"I feel like a very dear elder has left us. My heart is with the Hong Kong people," Wuer said in phone interview.

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.

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