Benny Tai of Occupy Central
Photo: Laurel Chor
Shortly before the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) co-organiser, Benny Tai, discusses with Alexis Lai his strategy of playing a highly leveraged game of chicken with the Central Government.
Proposed in January 2013 by Tai, OCLP is a civil disobedience movement that aims to mobilise Hong Kong citizens to peacefully obstruct key roads in Central. The aim is to pressure Beijing into giving Hong Kong universal suffrage in time for the 2017 chief executive election. As it awaits the government’s electoral reform package, the streets have been taken over by OCLP supporters, who vow to block key roads in the city until their demands are met.
Time Out Hong Kong: What are your thoughts on the controversial white paper that was issued by the Chinese central government in mid-June on the ‘one country two systems’ approach?
Benny Tai: I think the white paper has nothing new in its content. What it presents is the central government’s official understanding of ‘one country two systems’. That’s always been the stance of the Chinese government.
It’s likely the paper was released now because of the constitutional debate. I would see the paper in a more positive way: it is laying out a baseline of constitutional reform in Hong Kong. The one country idea is very clear: any change in our constitutional system cannot challenge the sovereign status of the Chinese government over Hong Kong. So it is setting a baseline you cannot cross.
Actually we’re doing the same thing in the civil referendum we’re organising. We’re also drawing a baseline: the election method of the chief executive must satisfy international standards.
Causeway Bay comes to a standstill during the first night of OCLP's actions
There’s an obvious potential conflict that the public choice for chief executive would not be someone Beijing wants to appoint.
That’s why Beijing wants to control the nomination. Whether there’s a conflict depends on the general attitudes of Hong Kong people. A candidate who is unacceptable to Beijing may get some votes, but will that person get majority support? I think the person who gets the majority vote will be appointed chief executive.
So you think a publicly nominated winner in a general election would actually be Beijing’s pick as well? Who are likely candidates?
Beijing has at least allowed Carrie Lam to be the chief secretary. Whether she can go one step further and be the chief executive depends if Beijing can trust her. Hong Kong people are comparatively pragmatic. We will support whoever gets elected through a fair system.
You’re saying public nomination and universal suffrage is not as big a threat as it’s perceived to be. But Beijing is unlikely to support public nomination, which is a central principle of an electoral system you would consider fair.
If you use the white paper as the government’s baseline, it’s possible to have public nomination. It’s an offer you put to the other side. This is your baseline and through your negotiation skills, you try to get the most of what you want. Now Beijing may not want civil nomination and we may want civil nomination. But actually both sides will not consider that as our baselines. It’s a way to try to gain as much as possible in the later stages of negotiation.
Is Beijing in a negotiating mood?
We cannot tell, but negotiate with us or not, we are going to organise OCLP if reforms do not satisfy international standards. Negotiate with us and there’s a possibility both sides can get what they want.
So OCLP is going forward until the government meets you at the negotiating table?
Yes, actually it’s at a pre-negotiation stage where both sides try to gather as much bargaining power as possible. Our civil referendum is a way to gather our bargaining chips. No one knows if we can actually hold OCLP. Can we get 10,000 people? It’s reasonable to predict that not all voters at the civil referendum will join it. But if 300,000 people vote and three percent of them are willing to be civilly disobedient, we could have that 10,000.
"Our [online] system is now under attack, I believe from Beijing"
How can people cast their votes in the civil referendum?
You can download our iPhone or Android app, go to our website, or go to polling stations. Our [online] system is now under attack, I believe from Beijing. If we can’t repair it, we still have our polling stations. The referendum is informal and has no legal effect, but it’s an overt act by the people coming out to support OCLP.
When would OCLP actually take place?
After our civil referendum, we will put forth our proposal to the Hong Kong government. According to the Basic Law, the Chief Executive will file an electoral reform report to the central government to be endorsed. Then Hong Kong will organise a second round of consultation, after which the Chief Executive will table a proposal before the Legislative Council. At the earliest, this will happen at the end of this year. Then we’ll be able to see if the government’s final proposal satisfies international standards. If it doesn’t, we may start to plan for OCLP.
The government aside, several chambers of commerce have spoken out against OCLP over fears it will damage the economy.
The more they say they’re against us, the more confidence I have that they’ll do something. It means they really don’t want to see OCLP happen. What then to prevent it? Either you arrest me or you allow us to have universal suffrage. If you arrest me, OCLP may happen even earlier, because sympathy for us will increase. It’s more rational for the business sector to support universal suffrage as they see OCLP’s consequences as uncertain. Of course they won’t come out and say they support us, but they will do something behind the scenes to ensure the government proposal will not trigger OCLP. That is also another strategy we are playing.
OCLP swiftly gained a new moniker - the umbrella revolution - after the humble objects were used to defend against tear gas
Couldn’t the police simply swoop in and shut OCLP down in a matter of days? Then where will you go from there?
That’s why we’re aiming for 10,000 protesters. Hong Kong only has 30,000 police officers. You need four police officers to carry one person away. The police force won’t be able to remove us as easily as they removed the 100 protestors last week at LegCo. They’ll have to use tear gas and water cannons – that will further delegitimise the government and it will face bigger problems. We can also return to Central. We can use other legal non-cooperative actions like boycotting businesses. All the pan-democratic LegCo councillors will join in the filibustering to show their non-cooperation with the government.
Are there certain types of people particularly active in OCLP?
Surveys show the majority of our volunteers are young people and those who are going to retire or have retired. We know the kind of offences we’re going to commit will incur a fine of a few thousand dollars and a criminal record. First time offenders will not be imprisoned. The opportunity costs will be lower for retirees if they get arrested – a criminal record to them does not mean much.
"If I was not a professor at the University of Hong Kong but at Peking University, I may have disappeared" Photo: Laurel Chor
Many critics point out the potential for OCLP to morph into violence. It’s intended to be peaceful, but ultimately you can’t control everything, right?
I think violence may happen but a colour revolution is unlikely. We will try our very best to maintain a peaceful spirit. We will have a patrol team and prepare guidelines for our participants to ensure that, not only they will be peaceful, but they will ensure the people around them are too.
I worry some young people will take more radical or violent actions. If we cannot get universal suffrage through civil disobedience, they may move to groups advocating violence, which are getting more and more support. I hope the government and pro-establishment people can see that. A movement organised by moderates like me is much safer.
Are you concerned about your personal safety?
No, I still trust the rule of law system in Hong Kong that my personal freedoms are protected. If I was not a professor at the University of Hong Kong but at Peking University, I may have disappeared. Hong Kong is the only place in China that you can organise civil disobedience in this way.
OCLP aimed to mobilise 10,000 people to stage a sit-in on the streets of Central. In reality it was hundreds of thousands
Is universal suffrage enough? With all the focus on it, it can appear that it’s the antidote to Hong Kong’s political problems.
It’s only the starting point. It’s just that we’re being blocked on four sides. Universal suffrage is a way to break through a hole. After we have universal suffrage, there will be all kinds of problems to resolve. They will require a Chief Executive with a lot of political skills who can use his or her legitimacy from being elected. We don’t have an elected system, so a lot of capable people have chosen not to be in politics. There are a lot of deep-seated problems and the Chief Executive must find ways to accommodate vested business interests and grassroots demands. I think every democratic country faces this. Don’t think that after universal suffrage, Hong Kong people will live happily forever. We’re not in a fairy tale.
Interview has been edited and condensed for concision.