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Interview: Occupy Central founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting

Luke Cooper spoke to Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the founders of Occupy Central in Hong Kong, about the growth of the movement and the prospects for real democracy free from the influence of Beijing

September 11, 2014
21 min read

Occupy Central and Occupy Hong Kong camp at the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong SAR, China (2012). Photo: Remko Tanis/Flikr.

The emergence of Occupy Central has recast Hong Kong’s political landscape over the last twenty-one months. Lively public debate over the polity’s governance developed in response to widespread concerns that Beijing would only commit to universal suffrage in 2017 if elections were restricted to party-approved candidates.

Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who put the original call out for the campaign of civil disobedience, spoke to Luke Cooper in Hong Kong shortly before the Chinese government confirmed the worst fears of the public with its recent announcement.

LC: Benny, I know that you’ve played a leading role in founding the Occupy Central movement over the last period. Perhaps we could start with an explanation of what led you to make the original call for a campaign of civil disobedience.

BT: That’s a long story. I’ve been involved in the democratic movement for thirty years, since I was a student at Hong Kong University in the mid-1980s. At that time, it was just the start of the Hong Kong democratic movement. We were striving for the election of our legislature – not yet for the chief executive because we were still under colonial rule and no such position existed. The ruling governor was still just ‘sent to us’ from London. Then I graduated and started to work at the university. I played less of a front line role, becoming more of a commentator and researcher. As a legal scholar, I was interested in constitutional law, which obviously has a very close relationship with the democratic movement and constitutional development.

After twenty years teaching and playing a less frontline role in the democratic movement, in 2013 we reached a point in Hong Kong where we needed to think about a way to achieve true universal suffrage in 2017 for our chief executive election. China has promised that we can have universal suffrage, but what do they mean by this? They tend to play with the concept. The kind of universal suffrage they say Hong Kong could have is just the right to vote, but who can you vote for? That will be something controlled by the nominating committee. And the nominating committee composition will follow the structure of the existing election committee – who are responsible for deciding the Chief Executive now – and represents a small circle of the elite with only a very narrow base in society.

This kind of universal suffrage, I like to call it “Chinese characteristics of universal suffrage”, will not be able to stand alongside what we believe to be the internationally accepted standards of universal suffrage. If that is the position of Beijing in the internal politics of Hong Kong, then we currently have no way to match their power. We must find some ways to raise and increase our bargaining power in the coming negotiation. We have used big rallies in the past. Sometimes these have been successful. Sometimes they have failed in achieving our goals.

But this time, because we are touching on something very important to Beijing, I suggested we have to find some other methods to achieve our goals. So that is why I proposed the idea of using civil disobedience. The idea of Occupy Central (‘Central’ is Hong Kong’s financial district) is borrowed from Occupy Wall Street, but with a different goal: not anti-capitalism but a democratic movement. We will have 10,000 people there with our plan clearly stated. The hope is that we can build and develop sufficient pressure for Beijing to modify the stance it has sadly taken.

LC: Could you describe how Occupy Central has developed since you put out the call?

BT: I wrote a public article suggesting the campaign in January of that year and two months later I, along with Professor Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, put out a public call to form the Occupy Central campaign, inviting people to sign it if they agree with our goals. The three of us – coming from civil society or the academic sphere, though Reverend Chu has more links with civil society groups – wanted this action to be the property of civil society and not just the Hong Kong political parties.

We wanted to organise a movement for democracy in a democratic way. So the first thing that we did was to organise a deliberative meeting, open to all, but specifically inviting a number of civil society groups and political parties.

We had 700 people there in a half-day meeting back on 9th June 2013. We discussed and set the agenda on the day so that everyone who attended was involved.

Then we organised a series of other deliberative meetings with specific civil society groups, which each have their own networks and people to link with. So we have meetings with the churches, the social workers, the students, a number of other groups, each discussing it with their members. These took place in October to February last year. And then in May this year, we had the third deliberative meeting, which considered all the proposals put forward, with 2,500 people participating.

The last meeting chose three different proposals, which were to be put to a civil referendum. This was not an ‘official’ referendum but was organised by civil society; this allowed everyone in Hong Kong to participate and choose their favoured proposal of the three that came out of the meeting.

800,000 people voted in the referendum and we had one proposal that had the highest number of votes – which is now the proposal of the whole movement.

LC: What was common to the three proposals that came out of the meeting?

BT: In March this year, we had a group of international experts on human rights law, election law and constitutional law, who came to Hong Kong and met with local legal experts and researchers in political system design. They came up with a set of principles for international standards in the application of universal suffrage. We used this set of principles and applied it to a number of proposals and came up with 15 different options that were taken to the deliberative meeting of 2,500 people.

All three proposals included an arrangement for public nomination meaning that individual voters could jointly nominate a candidate with others – they would require simply one per cent of the total electorate, around 35,000 people. This proposal was common to the three proposals that came out of the meeting, although they had different arrangements on the composition of the nominating committee.

LC: You’ve talked about how the movement has organised itself through deliberative assemblies. The relationship between political parties and civil society has been something that is frequently discussed in the global justice movement. Could you outline the nature of the connection between the Occupy Central movement and political parties, such as the Pan-Democrats?

BT: The political parties participate in the movement not as an organisation but rather as individual members. Their members join in the deliberative meetings. When votes occur people cast their own personal vote and not the vote of a political party. This is not a coalition of the parties, and not a coalition of parties and organisations, but the decisions are instead made by individuals within the movement. We do however work together with the members of the political parties and also the civil society groups to organise the meetings, especially the second stage which saw a series of meetings with different parts of Hong Kong society. The political parties organised some of these deliberative meetings with their members, as one constituent group in society. These second stage meetings were primarily discussion. No decisions were actually made, which was the role of the larger deliberative meetings for the movement as a whole.

After this second stage we moved towards a stage of negotiations with Beijing. Now the political parties have seats in the Legislative Council so they will have the real decision making power. But through the Occupy movement we connect civil society groups with the political parties. The trust between the two sides needs to be developed. There is some existing distrust there. But we played a role in connecting the two sides. Up until this point we have still been able to maintain a coalition between the civil society groups supporting democracy and the political parties supporting democracy, in order to join together in this action. But nonetheless the relationship is very unstable and we have to work very hard to maintain it and ensure there is trust between the sides. In some respects our coalition is built on weak foundations, but up to this point we have played a role in forging unity. I am not claiming all of the credit for this, but we have played a role in connecting the parties with civil society, which is the hardest part of the movement. Maintaining this relationship is the biggest challenge that we face.

LC: As well as the 800,000 people participating in the Occupy Central referendum, there have been a number of large mobilisations in Hong Kong in recent months. The annual rallies to commemorate the 1st July Movement (which forced the withdrawal of national security legislation curtailing certain freedoms back in 2003) and the Tiananmen Massacre both attracted some 500,000 people. These were not organised by Occupy Central but there is some overlap between the constituencies mobilising. Taken together this suggests that there is a fervour in Hong Kong society for these democratic issues. But I’ve also noticed that the formation of Occupy Central has sparked considerable public commentary, far from all positive. Last Sunday, there was even a pro-Beijing demonstration against Occupy Central! Meanwhile a pro-Beijing petition has apparently received over 1 million names. Do you think its fair to say there has been a public backlash?

BT: Yes, I think there’s a clear split that exists in society about Occupy Central. Yet even though there may be a lot of people who supported the public signature campaign against Occupy Central, this is more of a top-down movement that has been carefully coordinated by Beijing groups and organisations that use their resources to win support, rather than a bottom-up campaign. I admit that while many people who have been listed as signatories may not have actually signed it, many people who went to the demonstration you mentioned may not have known why they were there, and may even have been paid to attend, there is nonetheless still a substantial number of people in Hong Kong who are truly against Occupy Central and the things we are doing.

There are 800,000 people who expressed their views through the civil referendum, supporting universal suffrage on certified international standards. But there is also a substantial number opposed to us, which may be bigger, or may be smaller, we don’t know exactly, who need to be taken seriously. We are now reaching a situation where we have two opposing views in society. So the challenge for us in how we can find a consensus between the groups.

There is also a group of moderates. And the group of moderates do not like society to be split in this way. They may not agree with Occupy Central but they think universal suffrage should be supported. So they agree with the goal of the movement, but they disagree with the means, i.e. civil disobedience. But this middle group will not join with the anti-Occupy Central campaign, because they have no demands on the meaning of universal suffrage. So they think we are wrong to occupy the central area, but want to see a substantial form of universal suffrage. We have therefore three sides. We must find a way to reach a consensus in the whole of society so that we can proceed to the future constitutional development.

LC: I know you probably won’t refer to statistics as such, but according to your impression what is the type of people that have been attracted to the Occupy Central movement, in terms of age, social class, etc?

BT: You can actually look at the survey undertaken by professors at the Baptist University Hong Kong on attitudes to the mainland and the Occupy Central movement. From the survey we found that Occupy Central has around 38 per cent support in the population, and against us is more than 50. But we found that our support amongst people under 29 is more than 50 per cent, and amongst those that have been to university is again more than 50 per cent. And those with a higher average of household income also indicated a higher level of support. This is the type of support that we have: younger people, educated, higher income groups.

LC: That’s very interesting. When you talked about the Occupy influence earlier you said that you took a similar idea but without the anticapitalist or austerity-focused form of politics. But how important do you think socio-economic demands are to reaching out to other social groups in Hong Kong?

BT: We have groups within Occupy Central that want the whole movement to also include campaigning for socio-economic rights. But we think it’s better to keep it simple: that we want to have universal suffrage that is more on the level of democratic and political rights, not socio-economic rights. This is not to say that I personally disagree with this kind of view, but if we include reference to this it will be harder to maintain the unity of the movement that is already on weak grounds in some respects. Now if we had universal suffrage those who wanted to pursue more protection of socio-economic rights would have more opportunities to express their view, and more opportunity to raise these campaigns and demands.

LC: So in terms of the traditional left/right spectrum where would you say that Occupy Central sits or is it difficult to define the movement in these terms?

BT: It is very difficult to say given the situation here. In Hong Kong, when you say “the left” what do you mean by “the left”? In everyday discussion you mean the Communist Party. But interestingly enough in Hong Kong the Communist Party work very closely with business people, the very wealthiest people. But they also have influence over some trade unions. So it’s interesting that this “left” in Hong Kong has among its supporters some who are at the furthest end of the right. You can say that we are on the centre, perhaps. But we also have the labour groups supporting us. We also have the lawyers and professionals who may classify themselves as more on the right, but they are also supporting us. So you cannot put the thing in such a simple way of either left or right. It’s more about the relationship with China. In Hong Kong, we have this very unique situation. The way we draw the line is not the traditional left or right but in our relationship with China. Those who China cannot trust, or those who do not trust China, etc, are on the one side, and those who support the regime are on the other side. This is where the line is drawn.

I hope that if we can achieve universal suffrage we can go back to the normal kind of political spectrum with a left and right. Labour groups whether or not they have a good relationship with China would, in this situation, be able to work together to pursue socio-economic rights. And also some of the political parties that now may be considered anti-Beijing will no doubt join with the businessman in supporting Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong if we had real democracy. There will be a very different political geography once our struggle for universal suffrage has been won.

LC: A student activist I spoke to made a similar point about Communist Party support in Hong Kong that it combines the support of the very, very rich with some of the poorest sections of society. To what extent has the CCP been successful in creating a quasi-civil society, so to speak, around itself in Hong Kong since 1997?

BT: Oh yes I think they have been quite successful. They have been able to utilise the resources of the state to secure this. Take for instance one of the biggest parties in Hong Kong, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which is the main pro-Beijing political party. They are able to win a lot of seats at the local municipal level because in those elections the voters care more about the services that the district councillors can provide for them. So if the councillors can organise tours to visit the mainland or, at festival time, distribute mooncake, etc, for people living in the district, then they will be popular locally. How are they able to do this? Because they have the resources. Why do they have the resources? Because Beijing is behind them. The DAB also get a lot of money from business people who want to have a close connection to the DAB because of their economic interests in mainland China. Why is this? Well we can say it’s obviously not a communist party now; look at the policies they apply in mainland China. This is a society that is even more capitalist than many capitalist societies! If you want to do business in China then you must have good relations with the CCP. If you want to have good relations with the CCP you have to support the DAB in Hong Kong. These resources are then passed on by the pro-Beijing groups to help people of the lower classes, and it is partly successful in winning their support. So this is the situation.

LC: Some of the people I have spoken to, despite being very supportive of the Occupy Central movement, have in private been quite pessimistic about the situation and the possibility of Beijing conceding to the movement’s demands. But given the CCP has this social base in Hong Kong doesn’t that provide some scope for them to compromise and accept the movement’s democratic demands?

BT: We are making a similar argument. If the anti-Occupy Central movement can assemble over 1 million names supporting their demands then that means they have a very big social base. Why worry about democratic election that they’ll still be able to win? Actually we try to make the point that it’s very unlikely even that Hong Kongers would vote for a Pan-Democrat Chief Executive because they know such a candidate would not be able to work with Beijing. The Communist Party also to some degree understand this. They know that in the coming 2017 election a pro-Beijing candidate, i.e. one Beijing can trust, would be elected. But what they would not want is to see is any possibility of losing whatsoever. They want 100 per cent control over the matter.

LC: Perhaps as a final point we can discuss how your position as a legal scholar relates to all this. The Basic Law – the constitution of Hong Kong that enshrines ‘one country, two systems’ – is a rather unusual historical document because despite being agreed by the Communist Party it protects many basic rights and freedom, such as the rule of law, and establishes an independent judiciary. Given that the judiciary have the power of ‘final adjudication’ over whether laws are deemed constitutional do you see this as important to creating a space for political activism like Occupy Central? And how secure do you believe these rights are?

BT: This is a complicated question. But first thing to say is that I am a researcher into the rule of law in Hong Kong and I am interested in how it can be maintained. I find that the situation of the rule of law is deteriorating and one of the reasons for that is we don’t have a democratic electoral system to put it on a solid foundation. The rule of law is not just judicial independence – yes, this is important and many people emphasise this – but how to ensure judicial independence? You must have sufficient limits on the powers of the executive branch before you can have a good protection of this. And without democratic election the kind of protection will be weaker. As the Hong Kong situation deteriorates in terms of the rule of law we have to find a way to increase these protections. This is why we must have a democratic election. I am not saying that we don’t have a rule of law at the moment – we do – but how to protect it has become the central question when we are under a whole number of challenges. So we need to have a democratic system to sustain the rights that we have properly.

The second thing to say on this is about my own advocacy of civil disobedience, because some people have questioned this on the grounds: how can a law professor tell people to breach the law? This poses questions of what we mean by the rule of law, about the ideal of the rule of law, and what we are struggling for today. This is what Hong Kong people have not understood in the past: the mistaken idea that if you are planning civil disobedience – and therefore planning to breach the law – then you are somehow going against the rule of law. And this is something that the anti-Occupy Central campaign has developed as one of their main points. But the rule of law should not be literally understood as ‘obeying what the law says’. It is rather about whether you have a system of law that can achieve justice, including the political rights and freedoms of the people. So sometimes under certain conditions it is right to breach the law to help us achieve justice. That is the whole spirit of civil disobedience. Other people talking about that may not attract much attention but because I teach law here, at the University of Hong Kong, and am considered to be an expert on the rule of law in Hong Kong, these arguments have been raised over my role in Occupy Central. And this creates an interesting level of theoretical and practical argument within the movement.

LC: And most people I’ve spoken to in the movement think that the rights they enjoy today are more vulnerable than in the past, and that the current situation cannot hold: they can either go forward or back. So to defend what you have at the moment it is necessary to push for more. I assume you would agree with that?

BT: Yes, we see Beijing interfering into Hong Kong affairs more and more. We therefore need a democratic system in Hong Kong to ensure that we enjoy the autonomy that was originally granted under ‘one country, two systems’.

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