Hundreds mourn Hong Kong democracy icon

Hundreds queued to mourn a Hong Kong democracy icon who helped dissidents escape China after the Tiananmen crackdown, with the city’s leader and two exiled activists notably absent.

A condolence book for Szeto Wah, 79, was opened and a memorial ceremony held at a church in the territory’s Kowloon district ahead of his funeral later Saturday, which thousands of people were expected to attend.

But Hong Kong’s chief executive Donald Tsang and other government officials reportedly declined invitations to the events and immigration officials refused entry to two exiled student leaders close to Szeto, a long-time city legislator.

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 live in exile in Taiwan, also criticised their exclusion from the city.

“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 former student leaders 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”.

Hong Kong’s government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on Tsang’s non-attendance at the ceremonies from AFP.

After Szeto’s death earlier this month Tsang had said he was “deeply saddened” at the death of the outspoken campaigner, describing him as “devoted in promoting democracy” and adding: “He will be dearly missed.”

Szeto, who died of cancer, was instrumental in helping many dissidents flee China after the bloody crackdown on protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989, which saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people killed.

He also 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.