The following are two fictional monologues, written from the point of view of two prominent figures in Hong Kong. Benny Tai is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Hong Kong and the initiator of the Occupy Central Civil Disobedience movement. Jasper Tsang is the President of the Legislative Council.
Please note: the views expressed in these two fictional monologues do not necessarily represent those of the individuals concerned therein.
If, two years ago, I had been told that in less than a couple years time I would be in front of live television, banging on a loud drum and proclaiming the start of an ‘era of civil disobedience’, I would probably have laughed at the suggestion. That sounded much more like something the radical left-wing political activist Leung Kwok-hung would do. If I were to play any role in the democratic movement, it would only be the role of the ‘academic scribbler’ Keynes spoke of: significant, but safely behind the scenes.
Ironically, it was this seemingly harmless scribbling that got me into the situation I am in now. In January last year, I wrote an article in the papers which suggested that if the government were to betray its self-proclaimed ‘one country, two systems’ policy, and if it were to fail to deliver on its promise of universal suffrage by 2017, then the citizens of Hong Kong could retaliate by occupying the streets of Hong Kong’s major financial district – Central. I dubbed this the ‘Occupy Central’ movement.
It was just a vague idea, but it gained a lot of attention. Many of my friends praised my bold idea, but others were more hesitant. “You’re one of the most gentle people we know, but who knows how the crowds will behave,” they said worriedly. Then I started to be attacked by Leftist propaganda, which questioned how I, being a law professor, could incite others to break the law; or how I, being a Christian, could ignore the Apostle Paul’s teaching on submission to the authorities. But not all laws can be called legitimate, and not everyone who seizes power can be called a true authority. The criticism only convinced me of the need to put my theory into action, so in a few months time I, along with another law professor and a Christian minister, began the Occupy Central campaign.
In June this year we organized an unofficial referendum which saw over seven hundred thousand people vote for one of the nomination mechanisms we proposed. In July, more than five hundred thousand people took to the streets to demand true universal suffrage in 2017. We demanded not only an equal right to vote, but also an equal right to nominate electoral candidates and to stand for election. We were afraid that if controversial candidates were censored by a ‘nomination committee’, then voters’ choices would be severely limited even if they got an equal vote in the final stage of the election. This is not true universal suffrage, nor does it follow a democratic nomination procedure as stipulated in the Basic Law.
Despite the massive voice for a more democratic nomination process, government reports still called these ‘some opinions’ or ‘minority opinion’. The Leftists were quick learners. Robert Chow, a Leftist media personality, founded the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, which organized a signature campaign with the demand: ‘protect peace, protect universal suffrage, stop violence, stop Occupy Central’. The same organization later organized a street protest with the same stated aims. I was nearly persuaded to join them; after all, I love peace, I love universal suffrage, I hate violence, and I wished to God that Occupy Central would never have to happen! The Alliance gained widespread media attention and became useful for government propaganda, despite widespread allegations – and unabashed confessions – of bribery, misleading information, deliberate negligence and other forms of fraudulence.
The last straw came when Beijing issued a statement which outlined its bottom line for electoral reform in 2017. We had been trying hard to be fair and reasonable; we did not insist upon the controversial ‘civil nomination’ proposals, and in fact the proposals we publicly approved of included at least one that was suggested by a Leftist group. But the bottom line Beijing gave us now was stricter than anything suggested previously, and it even ruled out most of the proposals put forth by Hong Kong’s Leftist parties. Beijing required that all electoral candidates must be approved by at least 50% of the nomination committee (as opposed to 12.5% in previous elections), and that there can only be 2-3 candidates. These two requirements were pretty much the political equivalent of raising the middle finger at everything we had said. That night, I proclaimed the beginning of a new era of civil disobedience. But as one political commentator wrote, that night also marked the end of an era, a thirty-year-long fruitless attempt to achieve democracy through non-confrontational means. We trusted Beijing to deliver on its promises, but Beijing only exploited our patience by defaulting again and again. It was Beijing who forced us to resort to give up on that approach. At least – contrary to Mainland propaganda – at least we tried.
After this, it was only a matter of time before Occupy Central had to happen. I had planned the event to occur on a public holiday, so as to minimize economic disturbance (I now hoped that the movement would be an act of non-disruptive self-sacrifice). But when police started firing pepper spray at student protestors, I realized that the protests were moving out of my control. Occupy Central had begun, but my part in leading it was over. The crowds have no leader, and only the government has the power to stop them. How ironic it is that although I was the one who first suggested Occupy Central, student protesters are now accusing me for being too cautious and for hijacking their success. I admit that I am cautious – although you might not believe it reading Mainland propaganda – but who can blame me for trying my best to avoid the sad situation we see today? Some say that I started Occupy Central, and in a way that is true. But at the same time, I more anyone else hoped that we would never arrive at this day. I hoped against hope that the government would listen, that they would see sense, but it did not happen. Even now, neither Beijing nor the Hong Kong government have shown any willingness to address our concerns.
As Confucius said, if something is not given its rightful name all sorts of problems will ensue. Beijing’s proposed electoral reform is not just a sign of a lack of progress; it is a backwards step. If we did nothing in response, we would be giving assent to this fake democracy, allowing future governments to claim a popular mandate. Who knows what could happen then? Our struggle against Beijing is like eggs being thrown against a stone wall – we cannot win. But there is an old Chinese proverb which says: it is better to be jade shattered than to be clay intact. No matter what the consequences may be, we must still stand up for our rights and dignity. The people of Hong Kong have experienced a political awakening, but this is only the start of an era of civil disobedience. God bless Hong Kong.
The pan-democrats and the Beijing government have one thing in common; each sees the other as its opponent, as an obstacle to its goals. I keep trying to tell the pan-democrats that Beijing is not a sworn enemy of democracy, and I keep trying to tell Beijing that the pan-democrats are not separatists and that there are no foreign influences behind them. I even say these things in public. I am only telling the truth, but no one is willing to listen. Each side is starting to believe its own propaganda, each side is demonizing the other. Politics in Hong Kong is more polarized than ever before. It wasn’t always like this, the pan-democrats used to believe that democracy could be achieved gradually, through legal means, and Beijing used to be more willing to give democracy a try. But now the pan-democrats are disappointed with the lack of progress, and Beijing is afraid of the threats of civil disobedience.
I am amazed how Benny Tai and many young people today do not understand this simple reality. Beijing cannot bear losing face, so it would not allow anyone to threaten it. You know Aesop’s Fable of the Wind and the Sun. Benny Tai and his friends are like the Wind – all their blowing only makes Beijing become more defensive and confrontational. That strategy can never work. The students call Beijing stubborn, but they are no less stubborn if they demand nothing but civil nomination. That proposal is clearly a violation of the Basic Law, and even many Western countries do not use such a democratic nomination mechanism. Nor do the students see that Beijing has problems of its own. If Hong Kong is granted democratic elections, then the Tibetans and Uighurs will become bolder in their struggle for independence. Beijing has to be careful on many fronts, but the student protesters here do not see this. As it is, a combination of ill luck and misunderstanding has led to the sticky situation we are in now. I still try to find common ground, but there is no one who wants to help me.
It does not help that the party I founded is now the laughing stock of the city. By virtue of the biased electoral process it may still be the party with the most seats in the Legislative Council, but those seats are only filled by tape-recorder politicians, who only repeat phrases that they know Beijing would be pleased to hear. Cowards! Just listen to the vacuous nonsense our politicians say on television. It has become popular among them to point out how benevolent and progressive Beijing has been in comparison to the British; which might well be true, but then one thinks why on earth the Motherland should be compared to a colonialist government. It gives me small consolation to know that the pan-democratic parties are faring badly as well. Hong Kong desperately needs political talent, but a career in politics is precisely what bright, well-educated young people are trying to avoid. Why not go into banking instead, or law, or medicine? There is no future for politicians.
But I am being a hypocrite. Many of my friends have urged me to run for Chief Executive, to become the strong leader Hong Kong needs. I am simply afraid to take on the challenge. Nor am I the right person to be Chief Executive; I know too little about economics, and I will soon be an old man. Anyway, Beijing probably would not allow me to become Chief Executive, if they think I am too chummy with the pan-democrats. No, I will stay in my role as mediator. Not that I know if anyone else would be right for the job. The Chief Executive has to serve two bosses, Beijing and the people of Hong Kong; and these two bosses often go head to head against each other. Perhaps it is an impossible job.
Is there still hope for Hong Kong? I believe there is. Much as it seems unlikely, there is still time for the pan-democrats to give the go-ahead to the government’s electoral reform proposal. Of course the proposal is going to be a disappointment, I know that more than anyone else. But it is still a step forwards. The government could also try its best to accommodate pan-democratic concerns, while operating under the framework given by the Beijing government. If both sides show a sincere wish to discuss matters, there will be a way out. But if the pan-democrats remain stubborn and the reform proposal fails to pass through the Legislative Council, then democracy will be doomed until a time I might not live to see. It is no time for reckless heroism; for the Chinese proverb goes, a real hero is one who understands the limits of the times.
A student once asked me if, now that Beijing has frustrated, marginalized and ignored my advice, I still love my country. I do, because that is what love is about. I see Beijing’s defects more closely than almost anyone else in Hong Kong, but I still love my country.
I chose these two men for their honesty, thoughtfulness and sophistication of opinion. Sadly, such people are marginalized in Hong Kong’s increasingly polarized society. Benny Tai, who always emphasized the self-sacrificial aspect of the protests, has turned himself in for arrest today. Jasper Tsang is rumoured to be a key mediator in behind-the-scenes negotiation.
 In Hong Kong, ‘Leftist’ refers to pro-Beijing or pro-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) groups, not to any particular ideology. The Liberal Party, for example, which is a pro-Beijing party which believes in free-market ideology, is called a ‘Leftist’ group in this context.
 ‘Civil nomination’ is when the public can directly nominate electoral candidates.