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Occupy Central

Growing sense of cynicism in Hong Kong after Occupy, co-founder Chan Kin-man says

The sociologist notes there is still room for dialogue, saying he is well prepared and does not fear possible jail term

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 8:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 3:04pm

Three years after the pro-democracy Occupy movement in Hong Kong was launched, one of its co-founders says wounds from the resulting social divide are gradually healing, but a growing sense of cynicism remains in a city hit by political gridlock.

Sociologist Dr Chan Kin-man said Hongkongers now saw the limits of violent protests and pro-independence advocacy, and this realisation might provide room for dialogue in the once heavily split city.

But he said what worried him more was the lingering sense of cynicism – as reflected in the growing numbers of people migrating – after the unprecedented civil disobedience movement failed to make Beijing budge on democracy.

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That is why the Chinese University professor, who is facing three charges relating to public nuisance over his role in Occupy, has introduced a new course called “Leadership in an uncertain era” this semester.

“[The course] emphasises self-leadership and mindfulness. It teaches students to listen to themselves and not to be swayed by society and outside voices ... and also how to handle rage and frustration,” Chan told the Post in an interview.

The talk comes ahead of the third anniversary of Occupy on Thursday, where a commemoration rally will be hosted outside the government headquarters.

“I hope young people will still have an anchor amid turbulent times,” Chan said.

Watch: How Hong Kong’s Occupy protests kicked off

Citing an experiment conducted by American psychologist Martin Seligman, Chan said it was found that dogs, which were subjected to repeated electric shocks and had no way of escape, eventually learned to accept the treatment. Because of their conditioning, they did not try to run off even if an escape route was later provided.

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Chan said he did not want Hongkongers to become the dogs, even though progress in democracy might be a long way off.

“It would definitely become a dead end if we lose all hope,” he said. “What we need to do now is to safeguard our current system – such as a free press, academic freedom and institutional autonomy – and to fight for something more,” he said.

Chan said that did not necessarily have to involve institutional changes. He suggested more public engagement in policymaking and greater participation in legislative or district council elections.

He said he launched his new course for students partly because it could be his final semester at the university where he has taught since 1993.

If found guilty, Chan could be jailed next year, with each charge carrying a maximum sentence of seven years behind bars.

How can you not be frustrated when these young people who used to discuss [social affairs] actively with you, all refuse to listen or talk to you any more?
Chan Kin-man

He remained upbeat despite the possibility of long trials which could drag on for months.

The toughest time for him, Chan said, was the year after Occupy ended.

In the aftermath of the 79-day sit-ins that brought parts of the city to a standstill, the pro-democracy bloc was heavily split amid the rise of localist sentiment.

Some young people, who had completely lost faith in Beijing and the “one country, two systems” policy, slammed traditional pan-democrats for being too moderate. They pushed for more radical protests and Hong Kong independence.

“How can you not be frustrated when these young people who used to discuss [social affairs] actively with you, all refuse to listen or talk to you any more?” Chan said.

But he said there had been changes three years after Occupy.

Hongkongers were now aware of the limits of violent protests, he noted. They had witnessed the huge price paid by protesters charged and jailed for their roles in the Mong Kok riots last year.

The city’s youth had also realised the difficulties in pushing a separatist agenda, although their feelings against mainland China had grown stronger amid more instances of oppression, Chan said.

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“People have come to realise that for a movement to be sustainable it has to be peaceful. The middle-aged now also have more understanding towards young people,” Chan said.

“I started to see the possibility of having dialogues. I hope such talks can take place within the pro-democracy bloc first, then extend to the moderates in society.”

The Occupy movement had also entirely changed Chan’s career. He said he used to place 90 per cent of his efforts into nurturing civil society in mainland China. This would mean he had to cross the border, something he is no longer allowed to do.

People have come to realise that for a movement to be sustainable it has to be peaceful
Chan Kin-man

Chan said he also had to cut links with mainland NGOs for fear of compromising their safety.

“There is a long way to go for China to implement democracy. I have originally hoped to devote 30 or 40 years of my life to help build civil society on the mainland ... which might pave the way for the country to talk about it in the future,” he lamented. “But now it is all halted.”

The scholar said his responsibility now was not to show fear in the face of a possible jail sentence so as to defy the government’s intent to intimidate his supporters and fellow leaders.

Chan also said he was well-prepared for his time behind bars as he had changed his daily habits.

“If you were not here, I would not have turned on the air conditioner,” he quipped.