WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Teachers mourns the passing of Szeto Wah, the celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teachers union leader. He died on Jan. 2 at the age of 79.
Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong and known by millions as “Uncle Wah,” Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He also was a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party and served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004. In 1989, he created and was chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China—the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement on mainland China and organizing yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“Particularly in light of the continuing struggle for workers’ rights in Hong Kong and China, Wah leaves an indelible legacy with his courageous work for human dignity and workers’ rights,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
For over a quarter century, the AFT and the PTU have worked together in a shared commitment to trade unionism and workers’ rights as well as democracy and human rights in China. The AFT presented him with its Bayard Rustin Human Rights Award in 2002.
In a 2001 speech to the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute, Szeto said, “From Al, I learned to combine professionalism and labor rights to organize a trade union and to employ trade unionism to promote democracy in society. The development of democracy is in turn the best guarantee for professionalism and labor rights.” He continued, “Throughout my career, I have been guided by the understanding that democracy and freedom of association must be fiercely protected. Only in a democratic political system can human rights, freedom, and rule of law thrive.”