HONG KONG (AFP) – Several hundred people packed into a Hong Kong church Saturday to mourn a democracy icon who helped dissidents escape China after the Tiananmen crackdown, with two exiled activists notably absent.
As the funeral of Szeto Wah, 79, began six bells rang out in succession, followed by four more, symbolising June 4, the date in 1989 when China began its bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen protests which saw hundreds killed.
“He was a hero to the Hong Kong people — we are so proud of him,” Tracy Lai told AFP outside St Andrew’s Anglican church in the city’s Kowloon district.
“We really loved this person. He had a respect for peace and freedom.”
Kin Kuan, a 37-year-old mechanic, said the outspoken campaigner and long-time city legislator always stuck to his ideals. “He always held strong to demonstrate that humans need democracy and (civil) rights,” Kin said.
But two former student leaders exiled from China and who were close to Szeto were refused entry to Hong Kong for the ceremony by immigration officials.
That sparked claims Beijing was tightening its grip on the former British colony.
Albert Ho, a prominent legislator and chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, lashed out at the immigration department’s move.
“We have every reason to believe this decision was not made by the Hong Kong government alone,” he told reporters earlier this week.
“It is regrettable that our chief executive has relinquished his powers to control our borders.”
Activists Wang Dan and Wu’er Kaixi, both of whom now live in exile in Taiwan, also criticised their exclusion from the territory.
“The Beijing authorities should provide an explanation as to why they did this, which is a humiliation to the deceased and to Hong Kong’s taxpayers,” Wu’er told reporters on Thursday.
The two said the move to bar them showed Beijing was strengthening its hold on the officially autonomous territory, despite the “one country, two systems” concept under which Beijing governs Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau.
Hong Kong’s immigration department has declined comment on the issue, saying in a statement that it will “take into account all relevant factors and circumstances pertaining to each individual case”.
Despite earlier reports that he had declined an invitation to attend the service, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Donald Tsang made a brief appearance at the church ahead of Szeto’s funeral.
After the service mourners, many with tears in their eyes, walked past a flower-ringed memorial outside the church, while Szeto’s remains were taken by hearse shortly after to be cremated.
As well as helping dissidents escape Szeto, who died of cancer earlier this month, founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which regularly criticised Beijing for human rights abuses and pushed for political reforms in Hong Kong.