Benny Tai Yiu-ting has been called many names. The latest by Robert Chow Yung of Silent Majority for Hong Kong, a sort of anti-Occupy Central group, is that his plan for civil disobedience is "evil". That's just silly. The problem is not that Tai is evil. He is perfectly sincere and is campaigning in good faith. That's precisely what makes his plan threatening, misguided and likely to spin out of control.
Over lunch early this summer, Tai told me someone called him "poisonous" and he agreed. Now the Chinese word for that has a slightly different connotation than English. It could mean someone who is cunning, with a hidden plan or agenda. Tai admitted to that. What he means is that his plan has forced people to choose sides and face their conscience.
To understand what Tai, a legal scholar, is trying to do, you have to look at his religion and his scholarship. Like Martin Luther King whom he admires and emulates, he is a committed Christian. It's no accident that he announced details of his Occupy Central plan in a church, with his pastor by his side.
He is also basing the other part of his campaign - to come up with a universal suffrage plan by mass participation during what he calls "deliberation day(s)" - on the work of US legal scholar Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, a social scientist. He is driven by his religious faith and is trying to force social and legal theory he reads about against the realities of Hong Kong. In fact, he described his campaign to me as a kind of social engineering experiment.
To Tai, his call to "occupy Central with love and hope" is probably being likened to King's march on the Lincoln Memorial in which he delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech. The problem is that racial segregation was a real system of injustice, a blot on the US Constitution. Every great struggle for freedom and democracy requires extraordinary oppression to fight against. We just don't have that narrative in Hong Kong, as hard as the pan-democrats have tried to create one. Our city has been and remains one of the world's richest, safest and freest, despite or because of its semi-democratic system.
Democracy is a means. The nitty gritty stuff such as the dispute over who and how many people should make up the election committee doesn't interest voters. Instead, Tai and other pan-dems should study how successful election campaigns are actually run in functioning democracies. They should inspire voters with how they plan to make Hong Kong a great place - in education, healthcare, clean air etc - to gain their support.