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Szeto Wah dies at 79; Hong Kong democracy activist

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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 at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong. He was 79.

A teacher and former primary school principal, Szeto started his political career organizing fellow teachers, building Hong Kong's Professional Teachers Union into one of the island 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 at 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 the Tiananmen victims 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 was returned to Chinese sovereignty after more than a century of British rule in 1997. Every June 4 the alliance hosts a candlelight vigil, which typically draws tens of thousands of people, to mourn the victims.

Chinese officials still consider the 1989 protests a "counterrevolutionary" movement.

Szeto, born in 1931, 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.

"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.

news.obits@latimes.com

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