Suzanne Pepper, a highly respected American political scientist, author and HKFP columnist based in Hong Kong, died at her home on Wednesday, June 29, aged 83, following a short illness.

Suzanne studied the Chinese language in the 1960s in Hong Kong where she met Virupax Ganesh “VG” Kulkarni – an Indian army officer posted to his country’s consulate. They left for New York, where VG studied journalism, and married on June 19th, 1970.

Suzanne Pepper.

The couple returned to Hong Kong in the early 1970s and Suzanne joined the US-run Universities Service Centre (USC) on Argyle Street, gaining a PhD in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972.

VG began a long career in journalism, eventually becoming a regional editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review, whilst Suzanne joined the Committee for Concerned Asian Scholars and wrote several books on China. She was described as a “strong intellectual presence from the start” on the committee by Chinese history scholar Stephen R. MacKinnon.

Steven Butler, senior programme consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists, recalled that “Suzanne had a sharp sense of humour and irony, and spoke her mind freely, no matter who might take offense.” She often joked about the presumed Chinese agents who would interact with her, he recalls.

Jean Hung of CUHK with Suzanne Pepper (right). Photo: Courtesy of CUHK.

Her 1978 book on the Chinese civil war became an indispensable source on the political collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and her work on the topic was initially inspired by the challenges it created for U.S. foreign policy. “Her gripping account of inflation, corruption, the student movement, and the appeal of the Communists’ land reform informed all of our lectures on this critical period of modern Chinese history,” Joseph W. Esherick, emeritus professor at the University of California, told HKFP.

“Hong Kong will be poorer for the lack of her voice, but her influence will live on through this book and her many important writings.”

She joined the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in 1978, and went on to become an honorary research fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies.

Suzanne Pepper’s books.

After the 1997 Handover, Suzanne turned her attention to Hong Kong politics. She believed that, although the Cold War was over, the remnants of China’s communist revolution were still being played out in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as Beijing sought to bring its troublesome peripheries under control.

In 2008, she published Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform and began her “Hong Kong Focus” blog a year later to monitor the democracy movement’s struggle. She wrote that “Questions about dictatorship and democracy that Chinese intellectuals debated so eloquently in the late 1940s are now drawing new generations to the same debate, while the Communist Party’s past military drive for pre-eminence continues by other means.”

VG died in 2014 at the FCC aged 77 – a room at the club was named after him.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

With the launch of HKFP in 2015, Suzanne joined as a contributing writer, continuing her blog-style analysis on local affairs. Friend and journalist Francis Moriarty remembered her as “clearly brilliant, strong-willed and highly organised,” whilst friend Dan C. Tsang said she developed a routine around her HKFP column, devoting all of her time to background research.

“To her, printed newspapers were her source material, especially the Ta Kung Pao which she would regularly collect for free from a woman handing it out. Any news item I sent her, she preferred it to be in PDF, which she would print out to read later,” Tsang recalled.

University of Hong Kong academic John Burns said she was “always the master of documentary sources, both newspaper, memoirs, and official documents, and with excellent Chinese-language skills… Her capacity to integrate Hong Kong’s story with political developments on the mainland is legendary.”

Suzanne shunned cellphones and social media, hated being photographed, and refused to have a computer at home. She was often at war with the ever-changing WordPress interface and would sometimes drop by the HKFP office when her patience ran out and additional tech support from editors was needed.

As well as picking up state-backed newspapers, Suzanne would grab hard copies of other dailies from the FCC and hand-write her columns before typing them up on a CUHK desktop computer. When HKFP found the funds to pay more columnists after 2019, Suzanne agreed to be compensated – albeit after much protesting.

It was not known to HKFP staff how much the column meant to her, and how she dedicated all of her time to researching it during her latter years. In recent months, she began to express concern about publishing analysis amid the national security and press freedom clampdown, but she persisted nevertheless.

Suzanne had no family in Hong Kong but met friends and kept in touch with activists and academics over email. Her primary concern during her final days was finishing her latest column, which HKFP is hoping to retrieve.

Suzanne remained utterly articulate, sharp and meticulous until the end, and will be greatly missed by her readers, HKFP staff, and her sisters Patricia and Kathleen in the US.


Last year, HKFP pulled together all of Suzanne’s Hong Kong analysis under a new blog.


Tributes:

I am really missing reading Suzanne’s nightly (given the time zone differences between Hong Kong and California) “blasts” (her word) from computers at the Foreign Correspondence Club, Hong Kong and the University Service Center for China Studies. They were usually about politics, here, there or somewhere and whatever articles, etc…, she was writing. She had righteous indignation and commitment to her work pretty much right up to the end. She was also really bummed when her cable provider stopped providing the Turner Classic Movie channel.

Patricia Pepper, Suzanne’s sister.

Suzanne’s passing leaves a big gap in my life.  Since 2017, whenever I was in town, we would meet up regularly, sometimes even going to yum cha on CUHK campus, or on weekends at my favourite Chiuchow dim sum restaurant in North Point. When I was away, we chatted by email. Her last email to me was dated June 7, a month ago. Her recent life revolved exclusively around her column, with all her “work” hours devoted to background research and writing. Yet, when I would call her a journalist, she retorted “no, I’m not a journalist.  I was married to one. I know what a journalist is!” She saw herself as a blogger, even though she never owned a cell phone, and remained blissfully unaware of social media. To her, printed newspapers were her source material, especially the Ta Kung Pao, which she would regularly collect for free from a woman handing it out. Any news item I sent her, she preferred it to be in PDF, which she would print out to read later. She always kidded me for being an optimist in these dark times, but it would be more accurate to call her a realist, rather than a pessimist. She stuck to realpolitik.

Friend and scholar Daniel C. Tsang.

Suzanne would undoubtedly have had a prominent academic career in the U.S. based on the quality of her research had she chosen that path. She chose instead to remain in Hong Kong with her husband, VG Kulkarni, a successful and established journalist, and relentlessly pursued her career as an independent scholar. Suzanne had a sharp sense of humour and irony, and spoke her mind freely, no matter who might take offense. Toward the end of her life, she had an unbending regime of retrieving week-old newspapers from the FCCHK in the morning before they were tossed, and then heading to CUHK for a day of research and writing. I took her to dinner a few years ago, and she told me it was the first time in years that she’d been to a nice restaurant. She lived in a tiny flat and prepared all her own meals, living frugally. She didn’t complain about her poverty late in life so much as joke about it.

Senior Programme Consultant at the Committee to Protect Journalists Steven Butler.

Suzanne was clearly brilliant, strong-willed and highly organised. Her regular analyses of Hong Kong and China developments were then appearing on a single website in the US (in addition to her own mailing list) and we spoke about ways that she might increase her exposure to a wider audience. One suggestion was that she approach HKFP. We subsequently kept in touch mainly by email.

Journalist Francis Moriarty.

Suzanne was a private person who may have seemed aloof to those who didn’t know her. But she was in fact not difficult to know and never turned away anyone who approached her. She did not socialise a great deal, devoting herself to her research and her writing, which she took extremely seriously.

Friend Frank Ching.

My recollection of Suzanne goes back to Cultural Revolution Hong Kong and the Committee for Concerned Asian Scholars at the Universities Service Centre on Argyle St. Suzanne was a strong intellectual presence from the start, busy finishing a PhD with Chalmers Johnson (UC Berkeley). As a political scientist with a strong historical voice, this put us together intellectually on many subjects. She became very close to the Centre staff, and followed with regret the move in the 80s to CUHK. I knew Veejay as well, a veteran of the 1960s Far Eastern Economic Review in its heyday with John Gittings, Nayan Chanda, and others. They were a remarkable couple, quite devoted to each other. Meals with them ranged over Indian and Chinese politics. After the Review’s troubles, Veejay understood that Suzanne could never live in India – or Maharashtra to be precise. Suzanne wrote classic works on the Civil War period and PRC higher education, then turned to Hong Kong political commentary…

Stephen R. MacKinnon, Chinese history scholar.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.