Benny Tai Yiu-ting teaches at HKU and I live next door in Pok Fu Lam. But, no, the associate law professor who plans to hold up traffic in Central to press for democracy wanted to meet for lunch in out-of-the-way Sha Tin. Rather typical, I thought, of a man who just wants to make things difficult.
Funnily enough, he admits he is not making it easy for anyone with his Occupy Central plan. All I knew about Tai was what I had read and seen on television. So I was expecting fire and brimstone, a "Long Hair" in academic robes.
He turned out to be one of those cuddly professors found on every campus who would talk to anyone interested in their research. People tend to make him a hero or villain. But there would have been mass protests in the run-up to the 2017 chief executive race if Tai had never written a word about Occupy Central. In his academic mind, he thinks a free and fair election will be in everyone's interest, including Beijing's. But I said that while we may be ready for democracy, the reality is that Beijing is not.
Tai believes political reform on the mainland is inevitable. He agrees, surprisingly, that the central government enjoys a high degree of legitimacy. "Surveys have shown very high numbers," he said. But it's what he calls performance-based legitimacy. When economic growth stalls, he says, Beijing will need a more sustainable kind of legitimacy. "If I can think of this point, Beijing has people who have already thought it through," he said. "They must worry not just about today but 10 or 20 years down the road." Why not use tiny Hong Kong, he asks, as a reform experiment that can be contained if things go wrong?
He thinks that in a free and fair race, the Beijing-friendly camp would still win, provided it had a half-decent candidate, but not by a landslide. So the government would have the legitimacy denied it now. The pan-democrats, seeing the possibility of real power, would learn to work with Beijing and stop their "destructive" - his word, not mine - opposition for opposition's sake. Its radical fringe would wither away. Does this mean that, as the price of power, the pan-dems will learn to shut up about one-party rule, human rights, the suppression of dissent and media censorship? He seemed to agree, but he was munching on his caesar salad so I couldn't hear very well.