Rights campaigner bids Hong Kong a reluctant farewell

Professor Michael Davis reflects on the political struggle as he leaves the city after more than 30 years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 July, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 July, 2016, 9:00am

When Professor Michael Davis landed in Hong Kong from his home in Hawaii to take up a job at Chinese University teaching politics more than 30 years ago, the human rights law expert may not have realised he could not have picked a more fascinating destination for his research interests. Over his three decades in Hong Kong, Davis has witnessed – and participated in – numerous social movements. He took part in protests backing the pro-democracy drive by Beijing students in 1989, the campaign to oppose a ­controversial national security bill in 2003, and the marathon debates on the city’s constitutional reform that eventually triggered the Occupy sit-ins of 2014 among many other movements. Davis, whose ­graduated students have fanned out across the city and political spectrum to pursue careers, will retire from the University of Hong Kong’s law school and move to Washington in the United States this ­summer for a fellowship with the National ­Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit ­organisation. Ahead of his reluctant departure, he shares with the Post his views on stagnant political ­reform, unseen pressures on academia and his love of the city he has spent half his life in.

Why did you decide to move to Hong Kong three decades ago?

I heard about a job in Hong Kong. I lived in Japan before for a couple years and Hawaii is a really Asian place. So to me, Hong Kong seems to be a more attractive option than some schools in the middle of America.

I do work across Asia, all the way from India and Afghanistan to Korea, China and Tibet. The whole region has continuously been in some level of constant crisis. As a constitutional expert who focuses on development, it seems I am in the laboratory of the world for the problems that interest me.

Do you see yourself as a human rights lawyer, a scholar or an activist, and why is that so?

Probably all of the above. I think my attraction to academic work was to be involved in processes of social change. Mostly in my early days in schools, the Vietnam war was going on. Lots of us were protesting against the war and I think that introduced me to social activism. When I went back to Hawaii, I was a lawyer for native Hawaiians and the indigenous people’s movement. As an academic, I think I am stronger if I am not just marching on the streets but offering analyses and explanations. It is like being a witness but that doesn’t mean you are ­passive.

Why did you decide to actively participate in social movements in Hong Kong during your ­three-decade life here, and what has been the most remarkable battle for you?

Well, the battles are all remarkable. I think the first which caught my interest was the 1989 protest in Hong Kong. This is where social activism was born in Hong Kong. It became a lesson for people that they had to speak up to protect their rights. It was not enough to just rely on the British or some kind of treaty. I was a member of the Article 23 concern group [about a national security law] in 2003 and 2004 and the Article 45 concern group [on universal suffrage]. We distributed pamphlets on the streets. We held press conferences, and ­eventually the Civil Human Rights Front organised a protest about these concerns, attracting half a million protesters on the street. It was a high ­moment.

I think the Occupy movement was next in Hong Kong. By this time, I understood that what I could do was explain things ... I did lots of ­explaining and even won a human rights press award.


Has Hong Kong become better or worse in the past 30 years?

I think it has become better. Not in the sense that our freedoms are more secured; they are not. But in the sense that society is more politically aware. When I first came here, most people didn’t have any knowledge of politics. They did not get involved in social politics under colonial rule ... Like my university students in the 1980s, they mostly thought about getting jobs and how much money they were going to make. It’s a dramatic change to see our students so active in political and social affairs. I think it’s a big change and a positive one.

Are you confident of Hong Kong’s future and the implementation of “one country, two systems”, especially after the case of the missing booksellers?

I’m a believer that if the public constantly demand something, eventually they will get it. A government that ignores the public for too long will pay a price. What is complicated here is that the government making decisions is not the Hong Kong government, it’s the government in Beijing. The task has become to persuade the government to accept Hong Kong’s right to have its basic core values implemented, ­including democracy – and that is a challenging task. If the public don’t argue for this, then the Hong Kong they know may cease to exist. I think the protests are directly a consequence of these repressive policies. I hope at some point someone will understand maybe a softer approach would be more useful.

The implementation of “one country, two ­systems” is definitely under threat, especially in the past two to three years. In 2014 when [the State ­Council] issued its White Paper, it seemed to be the real turning point. [Beijing officials] seemed to be telling Hong Kong that they are the boss.

How do you see the drive by some activists for Hong Kong’s self-determination or even independence ahead of the expiry of “one country, two systems”?

I see their cause of self-determination or ­independence as an expression of frustration – we have marched for many years, we had the Occupy ­movement and still we have no democracy. We have no government that can guard Hong Kong’s ­autonomy. If the government wants to bring this to an end, the answer is to be less repressive and more committed to implementing promised reforms.

Do you think the so-called invisible hand of ­government has been extended to academia?

I think it is more than invisible. It is very visible.The university heads depend on the government for money and the establishment resources for their ­research. This means more establishment-oriented professors may take up positions.

In this environment, there’s a pressure that you shouldn’t raise contentious issues. Ordinary ­academics who are too active may face pressures over their tenure or promotions.

I think in the past five years, we saw some thinking in Beijing that Hong Kong activists were making trouble and universities were producing ­troublesome activists who were causing problems. So I think they have the idea in their heads that they need to fix the education system in Hong Kong. The next target was when Benny Tai Yiu-ting and others promoting Occupy Central came along … with ­students involved. I get the sense the government wants to retain control over the university councils.

Do you think there is a growing fear among fellow scholars that discourages them from speaking up or touching on politically sensitive issues?

It is self-censorship. I have seen it for years and it is probably growing. When I was a young professor in the Chinese University, some colleagues said they did not want to speak up because they did not want to jeopardise a promotion or their tenure. I think it is just more visible today. I remember in the past, ­senior university officials would put their hands on my shoulders regarding the Article 23 debate, saying professors should not be so active in public debate. I responded: “Well, if you are a physics professor, ­maybe that is not your role. But if you are a human rights professor, can you remain silent when human rights issues arise?”


How do you see the rise of localism in Hong Kong?

I see it just as a movement to defend Hong Kong, but whether they are realistic in their goal – that is ­another question. I see them as loyalists in that sense.

Some take a more extreme view that they are going to be violent. For them, it’s not their local pride that is the problem but their tactics. I personally am a believer in non-violent struggle.

What will you miss the most when you leave Hong Kong?

Politics. It is interesting. The politics of Hong Kong is just like a two-edged sword. It is an expression of ­frustration and despair but on the other hand, it is ­active engagement. We have a society where people really care about Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong ­people are very passionate about their community.

I think the ideal state would be for Hong Kong to have a democratic system that harnesses this ­passion and for us to let the people engage in ­peaceful political struggle over things they care about. I think the biggest resource for Hong Kong is that passion.