January 3, 2011 / 2:07 AM / 8 years ago

China critic and Hong Kong democrat dies at 79

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah, a long-time thorn in the side of Beijing’s Communist leaders, died on Sunday aged 79 from lung cancer.

Szeto helped organize an annual memorial and candlelight vigil in Hong Kong for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, drawing tens of thousands each time.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises of a high degree of autonomy, has served as an important base for civil liberties and democratic reforms in mainland China, with Szeto playing a key role.

Exiled Chinese dissident Wang Dan said Szeto had been a leading light in preserving the spirit of the Chinese democratic movement for future generations.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Donald Tsang praised Szeto’s contributions, including his recent backing of watershed political reforms in the former British colony aimed at paving the way toward direct elections in 2017.

“Hong Kong’s democratic development remained close to his heart even when he was battling cancer,” said Tsang. “Upright, industrious and unwavering in the pursuit of his ideals, Mr Szeto earned great respect from across the community.”

Despite undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer since early last year, Szeto continued to speak out on many rights issues including demanding the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month.

Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Matthew Jones

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