Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Hong Kong at forefront of China's democracy experiment


It started with a newspaper column on January 16, 2013. In it, law academic Benny Tai mooted the idea of an Occupy sit-in to pressure Beijing and the Hong Kong government to give Hong Kong greater democracy. Nearly two years on, just days after he surrendered to the police for his role in the Occupy movement, Dr Tai speaks to the Straits Times about what he has achieved, his regrets and his darkest moments.

You surrendered to the police last Wednesday. How are you feeling?

A sense of release. And relief. We have completed the process. It's possible that the police will pick us up after the occupation ends, and decide whether it is in public interest to prosecute us. It depends on what the Chinese government decides to do, how to deal with this new generation of Hong Kongers: whether taking such a stern stance will be helpful, or whether some kind of concession needs to be made to rebuild a relationship with the new generation

You have called for the people to move from blocking roads to blocking the government, using methods such as not paying their taxes. How will that further your cause of more democracy for Hong Kong?

The idea behind it is to cause inconvenience to the government, to add costs to governance, for not satisfying the demands of the people for democracy. It's to show that when you govern without the voluntary cooperation of your own people, it's just impossible to govern.

People can blame you for causing the inconvenience but people should ask, what has the government done? It's about the injustice of the system that has caused the people to do something like this. It's because the system itself has problems, it cannot satisfy the people's demand. And that's the idea behind non-cooperation.

So it requires a mindset change, and it is a struggle.

You have to build up the momentum and we have done so after the umbrella movement and we should further the base. We may not have the majority but I think it's a critical minority and we will get there as more people see the need for universal suffrage and the new generation comes to the fore.

Was there a moment when you realised you were not cut out for this?

Once it started, I had no regrets getting involved. But according to our plan, we should have ended in early October, been arrested and prosecuted, and - that would have fed back into my role as an academic - take the opportunity to make public statements and build up the base and occupy the hearts of the people.

You couldn't convince the students to retreat or to surrender with you. Why didn't they want to listen to you?

We have talked with them, and they know our arguments and up to this point, it's about their assessment of the situation.

It's a pluralistic movement and that's also democracy: you have different views.

After China's August 31 decision to screen candidates for the election of chief executive, you said you had failed to force Beijing to give Hong Kong greater democracy. Was civil disobedience really the right tactic, given that you knew such strong-arm methods wouldn't work with Beijing?

We had no choice. Either we resort to violence, or we hold legal rallies and protests, which are even less powerful. From Day 1, we knew the action itself wouldn't change Beijing's decision. Even if we had the occupation by 10,000 people, the system cannot be changed. But to occupy the streets is to occupy the hearts of the people. We wanted to get more people to our side and if we can reach out to a majority and everyone is prepared to use non-cooperation, the government would have to make concessions

Many analysts believe that Beijing will now become more hardline with Hong Kong. Do you think the movement ultimately harmed the democracy cause in Hong Kong?

With or without Occupy, the August 31 decision remains the baseline for Beijing.

It depends on whether Beijing is sensible, and recognises that (if it becomes more hardline) the Hong Kong government will face more resistance and more people will come to our side. Wait for 10 more years - the older generation will fade out and the young ones will come in, and the majority will soon be our side. And I think my life will be long enough for me to see that. But is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sensible enough to see that? Even in China, they will face or are already facing a new generation too - a result of the modernisation they have introduced which has changed the way people are thinking - which is thinking about what they consider to be a legitimate government.

But do you think the CCP will recognise this?

Hong Kong's democracy is closely connected to the political reform in China. It's linked back to that. China knows that it is going to face a new generation of people who may demand a more open and transparent government, you already see some signs of that - they talked about the rule of law in the recent plenary session. I think the CCP is smart enough to see that in the coming generations, they must reform.

(Chinese President) Xi Jinping is serious and sincere in saving the CCP and he is smart enough to recognise that the CCP is facing a legitimacy crisis and even if they can handle it now, how about 10, 20 years from now? So if they are sincere enough, out of practical concern, there must be political reform. And this will inevitably include some form of election.

You might say the CCP has already allowed a breakthrough in Hong Kong by giving us the vote (but we say it's not enough, we also want to choose our candidates.)

So ultimately, to Beijing, it's how they see the future of political reform in China. And they will see that the one they offered in Hong Kong is an experiment.

But don't you think that Beijing looks at Hong Kong and thinks, that's not what we want to see on the mainland? Hasn't trust between both sides been damaged?

Yes. And it's important for us to rebuild this trust. How? I don't know how. But they have to (do it) or else face a very difficult governing situation where more and more will be blocked, or use "hard" suppression, which they can't do in Hong Kong. Or make concessions.

How do you know they won't use hard suppression? For instance, by introducing Article 23, the security law?

That would lead to an even larger crisis From how they handled this movement, we can see that Beijing also has a baseline in the case of Hong Kong. Why not allow police to use bullets? Why not send in the PLA? Why "no bloodshed"? They could have taken a harder stance.

Beijing has accused foreign forces of being involved in the Occupy movement. Have there been foreign donations?

No. We received a lot of donations, about US$1 million for Occupy Central. A lot of it we got after the rallies and protests, such as on July 1. Some gave us a pile of banknotes, and we know them, they are Hong Kongers. And we also got smaller sums, in hundreds.

Any help from the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED)?

Nope, they worked with Dr Chan Kin Man's (university) centre but are not involved in the Occupy movement. My centre has worked with the National Democratic Institute (part of the NED), but it has nothing to do with Occupy.

What about the student groups, do you know whether they have received any funding from foreign sources?

I don't know. Why would they have to tell us? They (our accusers) have to provide evidence, and (Chief Executive) CY says he has evidence. According to our understanding, if someone brings a pile of money, and if it's (originally) from the CIA, how would we know? From what we know, it is all from Hong Kongers.


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