Q&A with Hong Kong Occupy movement's Benny Tai

Dr Benny Tai (left), an original founder of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, gestures as he sits on a bench after leaving the police station in Hong Kong on Dec 3, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Dr Benny Tai (left), an original founder of the pro-democracy Occupy movement, gestures as he sits on a bench after leaving the police station in Hong Kong on Dec 3, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

It started with a newspaper column on Jan 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, two days after he surrendered to the police for his role in the Occupy movement, Dr Tai speaks to The Straits Times on what he has achieved, his regrets and his darkest moments.

Q: You surrendered to the police two days ago. How are you feeling?

A: 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 whether or not to prosecute us. It depends on whether the Chinese government decides on what 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 relationship with the new generation

Q: In a New York Times op-ed, you called for the people to move from blocking roads to blocking the government, using methods such as not paying their taxes. Can you elaborate on that? How exactly will it further the cause of trying to win more democracy for Hong Kong? Are you yourself not going to pay taxes? (Hong Kong's next round of taxation will take place next month, in January)

A: 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. It will take a long time, but if there are many people joining... can be successful if the majority are doing it. 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.

Q: You mentioned in a Facebook note in end November that in the coming six months, there might be two notable dates when protests might flare up again - when the government announces its constitutional reform proposal, and when the legislature votes on it. Are you planning more Occupy actions then?

A: I made that observation only as an academic rather than activist. I'm now seeing myself less and less as an activist. My role as an activist should end. I am not a qualified street fighter. I do not see myself as being equipped with that mindset. What we have achieved is in civic education. We have achieved social awakening. and we can't claim all the credit because the tear gas has been the most important factor in causing the sprouting of the seeds we planted. But we planted the seeds. So I see my role as a continuation of that planting of those seeds.

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

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

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

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

They care about the occupiers' views more. Also there are (other) groups they are talking to more. But I just cannot see the logic for the continued occupation. For instance, on the surrounding of the government buildings - we explained to them that there might be people using violence and once it starts you cannot control. But they think it's still worth trying. There were other sticking points such as we felt that the dialogue with the government could have continued but they didn't think so.

Q: Did you see this as a reflection of a failing on your part?

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

Q: At one point, after the Aug 31 decision, you mentioned that you had failed to force Beijing to give Hong Kong greater democracy. Was civil disobedience really the right tactic to use, given that you knew that such strong-armed methods wouldn't work with Beijing?

A: 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

But if we turn this around, if you ask Beijing, if they know that Occupy Central will develop into this situation of an occupation of almost 70 days, would they still have made the decision of Aug 31? At that time, they knew we wouldn't do a lot of things, nothing to fear about this. So their decision was not affected by our (original) threat of action because it wasn't so threatening. If they knew then what would have happened, they may reconsider their position.

Q: Many analysts believe that after the Occupy movement, Beijing will become more hardline on Hong Kong and seek to tighten its grip further. Do you think the movement ultimately led to more harm to the cause of democracy in Hong Kong?

A: With or without Occupy, the Aug 31 decision remains the baseline for Beijing.

It depends on whether Beijing is sensible, and recognise that (if it does become 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 of people thinking - which is thinking about what they consider to be a legitimate government.

Q: But do you think the CCP will recognise this?

A: 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 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 choice of 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, it is an experiment.

Q: But don't you think that Beijing is looking at what is happening in Hong Kong, and thinking, that's not what I want to see on the mainland? In fact, one would say that the trust between both sides has been damaged?

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

Q: How do you know they won't try to use hard suppression? For instance introduce Article 23?

A: That will 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.

Q: Throughout the past 2.5 months, what was the darkest period for you?

A: After almost a month of the occupation, I was totally exhausted, emotionally and physically, and one night, after a long meeting, around 11pm or 12, I went back to my tent. It was raining and the volunteers were trying to patch the holes in the tent.

My wife and the volunteers said, you have to go home. At that time, I knew rationally I needed to go home, because I knew I couldn't function anymore, I needed to take a real rest. But it was emotionally difficult to leave because my comrades were still fighting hard in the rain. So I can fully understand why the occupiers are still there.

I left. It was the first time I left. But leaving gave me a new perspective, from a wider and longer perspective, and I started to detach myself emotionally from the Occupy areas. Before that, I was so attached I was just considering the daily issues.

Q: Beijing has accused foreign forces of being involved in the Occupy movement. Have there been foreign donations or help from foreign entities?

A: 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 bank notes, and we know them, they are Hong Kongers. And we also got smaller sums, those in hundreds.

Q: Any help from the National Endowment for Democracy (an organisation funded by the US Congress)?

A: 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.

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

A: I don't know. Why would they have to tell us? They (our accuser) 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 CIA, how would we know? From what we know, it is all from Hong Kongers.

- Interview conducted by Li Xueying, The Straits Times Hong Kong Correspondent

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.