What role should intellectuals play in politics? This question is at least as old as Rousseau and the French Revolution, or in China, as the May Fourth Movement. In Hong Kong, we are about to find out.
It's not an accident that the most exciting and provocative figures to have emerged in local politics today do not include a single politician or business person, but university scholars: Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University, Benny Tai Yiu-ting of the University of Hong Kong's law school and Horace Chin Wan-kan from Lingnan University.
I say this not because I agree with them; in Chin's case, I actively oppose his idea of autonomy for Hong Kong. Nor do I think much good will come out of "Occupy Central". But they are at least exciting in the way they present provocative or radical ideas that have helped ignite public debate and reframe the discourse on democratic reform. All three, interestingly, are not really public intellectuals; they are fully engaged political activists with PhDs.
Cheng is trying to forge a consensus among a dozen rowdy pan-democratic groups on the way forward to achieve full democracy. Tai wants to stage "Occupy Central" protests to force the government's hand in fast-tracking democratic reform. He is also trying to use what he calls "deliberation days" to educate and engage the public in coming up with their own designs for a democratic system. And Chin wants to celebrate local culture and to identity and form a full-fledged city state independent of the mainland.
There is no one comparable from any pan-democratic or pro-establishment parties with the charisma or ideas to excite and provoke, unless you count the loud-mouthed demagogic Wong Yuk-man; or Starry Lee Wai-king, favoured and promoted by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the government, to the puzzlement of everyone else. The DAB may be well-funded and organised, but there is no original thought or policy idea coming out of it that warrants serious public attention. Our old parties, whether of the left or right, are exhausted and fail to produce new political talent. New ones like Scholarism are run by amateurs and children. At least Cheng, Tai and Chin inject some energy into local politics.