Occupy Central

Academic Benny Tai proves he is not all talk and no action

Benny Tai's social experiment and political movement has long shaken off its image of idealism and created more inclusive politics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 5:07am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 5:07am

Hongkongers could have been forgiven for dismissing Benny Tai Yiu-ting as just an intellectual with his head in the clouds when he raised the idea of a democracy push through civil disobedience in January last year.

The newspaper article he wrote read like a research proposal, an idealistic social experiment that would not survive the rough and tumble of the city's politics.

But the University of Hong Kong constitutional law expert showed he meant business when, two months later, he started putting flesh on an Occupy Central movement, joined by the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and Chinese University sociologist Dr Chan Kin-man.

"It is a mix of a social experiment and a political movement," Tai said.

"My research in the past few years has focused on how to resolve public disputes in a pluralistic society. This is a chance for me to put my previous thoughts into practice."

As a pro-democracy scholar, Tai perceived a problem in advancing democracy. The city has been asking for universal suffrage as far back as the early 1980s. The handover came and went - and Hongkongers saw their goal pushed to 2007, then 2012, without any real achievement made.

Then the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress promised the city one man, one vote in the 2017 chief executive election and 2020 Legislative Council poll. But constitutional reform was conspicuously absent from Leung Chun-ying's maiden policy address on January 16 last year.

As if anticipating that, Tai put pen to paper, sowing the seeds of a civil disobedience campaign with that historical article on the same day.

The plan to organise a mass protest obstructing traffic in Central district pulled together disparate pan-democrats and refreshed tired calls for democracy.

But a May 6 vote by just 2,500 people - all supporters of the Occupy movement - has divided the moderates and radicals in the pan-democratic camp.

All three electoral reform plans chosen out of 15 at the deliberation session propose letting voters nominate chief executive candidates - a demand repeatedly rejected by local and Beijing officials. None of the moderates saw their own ideas, which excluded public nomination, make it onto the shortlist.

That means moderate proposals will be left out of a second ballot, to be held citywide between June 20 and 22, in which the final winner will be championed by the Occupy movement.

The moderate Democratic Party was angry with the radical People Power and League of Social Democrats for reneging on their promise to support a proposal tabled by the Alliance for True Democracy, instead voting for one raised by student-led group Scholarism and the Federation of Students.

Tai said they had not meant to alienate the moderates. Occupy organisers had thought moderate ideas would make the cut.

"It did not happen as planned and the authority of the June 22 vote has been undermined. But the movement will not dissolve because of the controversy."

The turn of events instead gave Occupy a chance to review its strategy in the fight for democracy. Likening the battle to a soccer match, Tai said the movement could play the role of a forward to divert opponents "so as to create room for moderate pan-democrats to score". That meant attacks from Beijing and local officials were not necessarily destructive to the movement, he said.

"The civil disobedience plan has to keep responding to changes in society."

Occupy faces an aggressive line-up of opponents: an anti-Occupy group called the Silent Majority for Hong Kong that boasts a substantial war chest; top local and mainland officials who took turns to condemn the campaign for "violating the law and dealing a blow to Hong Kong's stability"; and the police, which is training officers in preparation for any chaos - despite a pledge from organisers that the action would be non-violent.

Beijing's vigorous reaction was probably down to the mood of individual empowerment - as opposed to one-party rule - that Occupy Central had whipped up in the city, even before any streets in Central have been brought to a standstill, Tai said.

"The political culture in Hong Kong has undergone a qualitative change - a kind of individual empowerment. If there was no civil referendum, the pan-democratic camp would have sorted out its electoral reform proposal among a few heavyweights."

Deliberation was a new element in local politics, he believed. Now that it has taken root, the wheels of change are unstoppable. "Once individuals are empowered, you cannot go back to the old days, when a few big guns called the shots."

And inevitably, a qualitative change has also slipped into the associate professor's personal life. "I used to be just a university academic living in my comfort zone, spending my spare time sending my children to school and going home for dinner," Tai, who turns 50 this July, said. "Now my daughter and two sons volunteer for the movement. My wife is Occupy's campaign manager."

Career-wise, "my foundation is still in academia", he said.

"I still receive condemnation letters from parents now and then. But I am a tenured teacher, so it is all right [to take pressure over Occupy Central]."

Before his graduation from the HKU law school in 1987, Tai was a student representative on the now-defunct Basic Law Consultative Committee, a role that shaped his path today.

"I was Martin's assistant and his fight for democracy impressed me," he said, referring to the Democrats' founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, a heavyweight in the city's democratic development.

To Central businesses that feared the planned "occupation", Tai gave an assurance it would not happen in the next two months. In its early days, the campaign had pledged to blockade the district this summer.

"We will not hold any protest before it is confirmed that the government's electoral reform proposal goes against global standards," he said. "We will follow the plan we set at the start, even if there are eventually only three of us left, walking to Central." That might well be next year. One of Tai's HKU classmates has much to do with the timing: Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung is part of a government trio in charge of the reform plan.


Benny Tai Yiu-ting

Age 49

Family Married with a daughter and two sons

Diocesan Boys' School;
Bachelor of Laws and Postgraduate Certificate in Laws, University of Hong Kong;
Master of Laws, London School of Economics and Political Science

From 1990: academic at HKU law faculty
1991-2001: assistant professor; 2001 to present: associate professor
2000-08: associate dean