Occupy Central

Occupy Central pioneer outlines its four-stage plan to achieve democracy

The mastermind of Occupy Central, Benny Tai, outlines the movement's four-stage scheme to achieve universal suffrage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 3:47pm

It's taken fewer than 100 days for Dr Benny Tai Yiu-ting to go from low-profile academic at the University of Hong Kong to leading figure in one of the most radical and ambitious campaigns in the city's fight for democracy.

"It is like a century ago," Tai said of a conversation with the Post in early February, when he outlined his plan to rally tens of thousands of protesters to block the roads in Central - dubbed the Occupy Central movement.

Tai hopes the protest will rally support from the public and put Beijing under pressure to allow democracy for the city, starting with a free and fair vote, by universal suffrage, in the 2017 poll for chief executive.

But in an interview at HKU's new Centennial Campus last week, before he met the press yesterday to discuss further details of his plan, Tai emphasised that the blockade was merely the final step in a campaign to "cultivate a democratic process" for the city.

Since he first floated the idea in his Economic Journal column two months ago, Tai has met 10 pro-democracy groups to lobby support for his plan and says the feedback has been encouraging.

While the Occupy Central plan is due to roll out over the next 15 months, Beijing's reaction suggests two months may already have been too long in politics.

Last Sunday, Qiao Xiaoyang , chairman of the Law Committee under the National People's Congress, set the tone for the reform debate by declaring that pan-democrats who "insist on confronting the central government" must be screened out from running in the chief executive poll.

Qiao was also quoted as saying that Tai's article was one reason the central government had to show its hand and join the reform debate at an early stage. Beijing has long promised universal suffrage for the 2017 poll, but has given few hints on what shape the democratic process would take.

Wang Guangya , director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, warned at the same event that Hongkongers would not wish to see the city "messed up".

Tai admits he did not expect his plan to draw the level of public attention it immediately attracted. He certainly had no reason to believe his idea would raise the curtain on a debate over the city's political future.

"But for now, I do expect to face more severe attacks from Beijing and the pro-establishment camp, or even arrests by police, despite the fact we have never advocated overthrowing the government," said Tai, a constitutional law expert and an associate professor of law at HKU.

I do expect to face more severe attacks from Beijing and the pro-establishment camp, or even arrests by police, despite the fact we have never advocated overthrowing the government

He insists the organisers are in no hurry to jump to the final and most high-profile stage of their campaign. Indeed, when he and two members of his ad-hoc campaign group met the press yesterday, their focus was on the conviction statement, the manifesto for the campaign.

"I know many people are focusing on the final action, but the movement is more about cultivating a democratic process for the city," Tai said last week.

Tai says there are four key stages of the plan, beginning with the oath members will be asked to take in July this year.

The oath, drafted as a legal document, will acknowledge the movement's non-violent nature. The initial plan was to ask participants to agree to surrender to the police after the blockade, but Tai has instead decided to leave the decision to individuals. "We are sticking to a pure model of civil disobedience, in which we are responsible for our own actions," Tai said.

"Everyone has to calculate the cost they could pay, and if one does not want to break the law, he or she can take a supportive role and we still welcome them."

After the oath, the movement will hold a novel "deliberation day" - a concept borrowed from a book of that title by American political scientists Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. The academics conceived the idea of a deliberation day as a public holiday when members of the public could come together to discuss public affairs.

On the deliberation day, which Tai anticipates will take place early next year, tens of thousands of people who sign the oath will be divided into focus groups of 10 to 15 people for in-depth discussions on various proposals for political reform.

Tai suggests that the discussions take place in schools across the city and that participants vote electronically for their preferred proposals.

"The key point of the movement is about developing a democratic culture of rational discussion and consensus building by the people themselves," Tai said. "It is like an open-source [computer] program, with any opinions welcomed."

A citywide ballot of preferred proposals, either in the form of a civil referendum or a by-election triggered by the resignation of a lawmaker, would then take place by April or May next year to obtain "the citizens' authorisation" - the penultimate step in the plan.

Former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, who won one of the newly created "super seats" in the legislature last year, has already indicated that he is willing to resign to trigger such a referendum if it can help the movement. Such a move would spark memories of the controversial 2010 resignations of five pan-democrat legislators to spark by-elections, which they billed a "de facto referendum" on universal suffrage despite a boycott by most political parties.

Under rules introduced after those by-elections, Ho would be ineligible to run for the seat he vacates.

Tai has repeatedly insisted that the final action, the road blockade, is "the last resort", and is in no rush to discuss the details, including the location and the length of the blockade. He also would not rule out other acts of non-co-operation before or after the blockade.

"By the time we obtain Hongkongers' endorsement of a political reform proposal, the nuclear weapon is assembled," Tai said of the blockade. "But whether we will use it depends on whether Beijing fulfils the expectation of Hongkongers for genuine universal suffrage that meets international standards."

Tai is optimistic that at least 10,000 people will sign the oath, citing encouraging feedback from the middle class.

"The next step will be to convince the grass roots," he said.

But Chan Kin-man, another core member of the Occupy Central movement, says they will press ahead with the support of as few as 100 to 200 committed participants.

Chan, a member of the now-dormant Alliance for Universal Suffrage, which led dialogue with Beijing on the arrangements for last year's Legislative Council election, says he has been disappointed by Beijing's lack of determination in preparing for universal suffrage since 2010, when the previous electoral reforms were passed.

"Three years on, I have yet to see any serious efforts by Beijing to engage in dialogue with moderate political forces in Hong Kong in preparation for the introduction of universal suffrage in 2017," he said.

Chan says he has been meeting central-government-affiliated researchers in the past few years but they focused on seeking his views on Hong Kong's political situation.

"They are not interested in serious dialogue on paving the way for universal suffrage. That's where my frustration arises," he said.

In the past, Tai and Chan were seen as moderate in their views, albeit leaning towards the pan-democrats.

Recent weeks have seen Beijing-loyalist heavyweights in Hong Kong, including Ng Hon-mun, a former NPC deputy, speak up against the Occupy Central plan, saying it would "paralyse Hong Kong".

Tycoon Li Ka-shing, Asia's wealthiest man, said he had "no good answer" when asked about the Occupy Central movement this week.

In the interview in early February, Tai said every Hongkonger had what he terms a "Central" in them - in other words, a price they are willing to pay to achieve democracy.

With the movement getting on track, it has gained its own momentum. Regardless of how much each of us is willing to pay, it is unlikely to be stopped any time soon.


July 2013: Oath-taking days - solemn ceremonies for participants to declare their commitment to the plan

Early 2014: A deliberation day - 10,000 participants divide into groups to discuss and vote on ideas for political reform

April/May 2014: Citizens' authorisation - A citywide civil referendum, or a by-election triggered by the resignation of a lawmaker

July 2014: Occupy Central - 10,000 participants block the roads in Central to pressure Beijing for democracy