'I'm an old man ready for a final battle'
Reverend Chu Yiu-ming has fought for democracy since the '80s, and sees Occupy Central as last chance to make contribution
"Back in the early '80s, we were asking for democracy and human rights. More than 10 years later, we are still doing the same thing. It seems that we have returned to our starting point after all these years," Reverend Chu Yiu-ming told the Post in 1997 - just before he departed for New York on study leave.
Some 16 years later, the 69-year-old pastor - still a frontline advocate for democracy - finds those old words still hold true.
"Never mind universal suffrage, our next generation still needs to safeguard the diminishing rule of law and our freedom. The situation now is no different than 30 years ago," Chu says. "I always feel like we're dragged back to the starting point."
Chu has been an important figure in Hong Kong's democratic movement since the 1980s, but largely operated in the background until he joined University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chinese University sociologist Dr Chan Kin-man last year to propose the Occupy Central movement.
They have pledged to rally volunteers to blockade the streets of Central next summer if the government does not come up with a satisfactory universal suffrage plan for the 2017 chief executive election.
Chu and his allies have become a target for often vicious attacks by Beijing officials and loyalists, accusing them of everything from colluding with Taiwanese activists to endangering the city's stability.
"I'm an old man without any burdens and thus all these accusations have inflicted no pressure on me," Chu says. He is more concerned for Tai and Chan, younger men at the height of their careers.
To prepare for Occupy Central, Chu says he has read many books on the history of civil disobedience - and swims every day to stay healthy.
"I have tried everything to fight for democracy, but not civil disobedience. It's a brand new learning process for me, too," Chu says. "I demand nothing and only want to devote a bit of my energy to my dream. I want to be a companion for Tai and Chan in this challenge."
After the bloody June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chu lead the operation known as Yellowbird which helped dissidents flee overseas via Hong Kong.
"We didn't have direct elections in 1988, but we had them in 1991," Chu says. "I could see democratic development was on its way from 1991 to 1995. At that time, advocates in the religious sector, including me, felt that our mission had been accomplished - and so I faded out from the front line of political struggle and devoted myself to working for livelihood issues instead."
He sat on the governing committees of two hospitals and the Hospital Authority's complaints committee. But events drew him back in to activism. "I never thought the Urban Council and Regional Council would be abolished after the handover, nor that the government would decide to bring back appointed district councillors - an undemocratic practice that had been scrapped in the colonial era," the pastor says with a sigh of regret.
In 2001, Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming and late democracy icon Szeto Wah approached their old comrade to plan for a new wave of democratic campaigning.
"We set up the Hong Kong Democratic Development Network in 2002. But right before we - in April 2004 - put forward reform proposals for universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008, the National People's Congress interpreted the Basic Law and ruled out the possibility," Chu says.
Then his voice rises: "So don't keep on telling me that democracy has to be implemented with a 'gradual and steady' approach - I am now calling for universal suffrage by 2017."
The pastor sees Occupy Central as his last battle. Not only is it costing him precious moments with his grandchildren, but also the time to record the history of Yellowbird.
"My memory is fading and there isn't much of a written record of the operation. I'm the one who knows the most about it," Chu says.
"Occupy Central is the last battle. All I want is Hongkongers to awaken from the sense of helplessness and hopelessness they are feeling now. To not just conform to what the grandfather (Beijing) wants, but fight for what we really want. Democracy will then succeed."
1974: Joined Chai Wan Baptist Church
1984: Began working with advocacy groups to fight for direct elections to the Legislative Council in 1988
1989: Co-founded Hong Kong Christian Patriotic Democratic Movement and Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China
1991: Became vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China
2002: Co-founded Hong Kong Democratic Development Network
2012: Joined Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man to push the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement