Interview with Benny Tai of Hong Kong’s Occupy movement

Leonie Bramwell 7 October 2018

The opening event of the 2018-19 academic year at the Cambridge Union saw four individuals intimately involved with pro-democracy action in Hong Kong share their experiences with an attentive crowd. Though Hong Kong is rarely a topic of interest in British politics, Martin Lee – the so-called “grandfather” of democracy in Hong Kong – argued that Beijing is “actually emboldened by [the British government’s] silence” on its increasingly authoritarian action. Evan Fowler, the co-director of the Hong Kong Free Press, delivered a moving and personal speech on the link between a democratic free press and the preservation of culture and identity in Hong Kong, while Nathan Law, the youngest member of the legislative council in Hong Kong prior to his expulsion last year, spoke passionately about finding one’s “vocation” in politics. I spoke to Benny Tai, a legal scholar known for his involvement in initiating the Hong Kong Occupy movement of 2014, about politics, youth activism, and his irrepressible optimism regarding Hong Kong’s future.

The idea of “genuine” democracy is common to discussions about Hong Kong, and I was interested in Tai’s own definition of the term. His response was measured, and he emphasised his reluctance to define democracy “too narrowly”. Democracy, he stated, was for him about more than representation in a legislature. “Even if you do have representative democracy,” he noted, “the government can be quite detached from the people. With the Occupy movement, we attempted to introduce the idea of deliberative democracy into Hong Kong.” When I emphasised the frustration of many 2014 protesters with “consultation”, such as the heavily publicised interaction between Hong Kong’s government and five leaders from the Federation of Students in October 2014, he sought to clarify his point. Tai stressed that their aim was not consultation itself, given the lack of any real imperative for the government to respond to the needs of its citizens. Instead, the ideal of deliberative democracy in Hong Kong was “about the people having their own dialogue – we hoped to provide a platform for ordinary citizens to express and exchange their views.”

The centrality of a free press to a functional “genuine democracy” was a subject often revisited throughout the panel. Political activism over the past decade has benefitted from the use of non-traditional media forms (namely, social media) as a method by which to organise. It has also proven, most notably in the Cambridge Analytica controversy, to also be a method by which unaccountable bodies might corrupt the democratic process.  When I asked Tai about his experiences with Occupy, he made clear that to split hairs about the morality of social media is something one can only do if one already has the privilege of access to multiple media formats. “We have no choice in Hong Kong,” he stated, “The traditional media – TV, the radio, printed newspapers – are already very much under the influence or control of the Chinese Communist party”. It was, he argued, only through non-traditional channels that pro-democratic activists could organise at all.

Martin Lee had described Hong Kong earlier that evening as having historically occupied a fluid space between semi-democracy and semi-authoritarianism. There was a clear sense coming from all of the panel members, most especially Evan Fowler (the only individual to answer “no” to the question of whether he was optimistic that Hong Kong could attain genuine democracy within the next fifty years) that over the past two decades Hong Kong has been sliding consistently toward the authoritarian end of that scale. This gray area, moreover, seems irrevocably linked to the insecurity of freedoms granted to Hong Kong’s people under the Basic Law. I asked Tai if he truly believed that Hong Kong could ever leave this grey area, given its proximity to an authoritarian global superpower able to exert considerable influence to further its own vested interests.

“If China continues to be under authoritarian rule,” he said, “the chance for Hong Kong to have genuine democracy will be very small. There would need to be some form of change within China – this may not be the total collapse of Communist rule, but certainly some form of political change within the state”. Yet Tai’s optimism remains; he stressed Hong Kong’s prior role in effecting change in the mainland. He thinks of his home as “a place wherein new ideas can be incubated, a shelter to dissidents” and stresses that at the present moment “we maintain a degree of political freedom which can enable fundraising and other forms of peaceful activism.” This role, in his view, is “vital” and continuous.

In the wake of the 2014 protests, there were attempts made to locate the cause of the discontent of Hong Kong’s youth in the economic, rather than the political realm. Given that Hong Kong suffers from a lack of social mobility and a level of income inequality that means the wealthiest 10 percent of households earn nearly 44 times more than the poorest 10 percent, this explanation, favoured by the pro-Beijing camp, is not inconceivable. Tai’s first-hand experience with Occupy, however, means he places dissatisfaction with one’s economic state as only a “background” to action. What triggered the movement, he said, was “anger – anger at the government having used tear gas against its own people. That was the essential motivation.”

I concurred. The use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, including Martin Lee, did make the movement fundamentally political above all else; the emphasis of the protestors on a pro-democracy stance is understandable in a context wherein the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s citizens had just been so blatantly infringed upon. “Yes, you may say so,” Tai agreed, “They are interrelated. It [the Umbrella Movement] was an attempt to fight against authoritarianism, by building up a democratic system.”

The fight against authoritarianism is ongoing. Memories of the government’s use of tear gas against peaceful protestors in 2014 have not faded, and as recently as September the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party made international headlines. The situation in Hong Kong is, moreover, less far removed from Cambridge than one might expect. As noted by Evan Fowler during the panel discussion at the Union last night, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, is currently listed as an Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College. Fowler condemned the fellowship, stressing that Cambridge University, in honouring Lam, is failing to stand for the freedom of access to information that is so essential to a democratic society. It is a sobering reminder that Britain is not only failing to fight, but actively complicit in, the denial of the genuine democracy towards which Lee, Law, Fowler, and Tai continue to strive.