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Benny Tai: Hong Kong Protests ‘Beyond What I Imagined’

Foreign Policy interviews a key figure behind Hong Kong's recent civil disobedience.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images

HONG KONG — Benny Tai is associate professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong and an outspoken leader of Occupy Central, one of the organizations that helped start the protests that have rocked Hong Kong in recent days, with police unexpectedly deploying tear gas and pepper spray in response. Protesters continue to occupy roads in major areas of the special administrative region, an island city that has an increasingly tense relationship with Beijing and with its own head of government, Beijing-friendly Chief Executive C.Y. Leung.

An exhausted, hoarse Tai took a few minutes to speak with Foreign Policy about the movement’s origins, whether it’s spun out of control, and when and how it could end. 

On how the protest squares with Tai’s expectations: 

"It is beyond what I imagined. In the past, we were only talking about 10,000 people occupying Central. The areas occupied include Central, Admiralty, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok. The number of participants were many times 10,000.

"The protesters’ determination and resilience have been much greater than I would have thought. They have been fearless against pepper spray and tear gas; their commitment to the spirit of non-violence is beyond what I could have imagined. Hong Kongers have [made] me very proud."

On whether the situation is out of control:

"People who describe a movement as controllable assume someone can direct a movement. But when a social movement provides a citywide political awakening, it can no longer be controlled by the organizers or the initiators. People in power have the ability to fulfill democratic demands, and they are the people who can control the movement." 

On the government’s response:

"I am extremely disappointed in the response [by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the mainland government’s Hong Kong Liaison Office]. Through occupation, Hong Kong citizens have shown their determination for democracy and universal suffrage, and [the leadership] cannot see it. They only avoid addressing such demands, and find excuses for using unreasonable force, and even violence. It is unacceptable."  

On civil disobedience and conflict:

"The spirit of civil obedience lies in the fact that people do not destroy public property, or harm others physically. In the face of law enforcement who have much greater ability to use force, students remained non-violent and as you can see, they did not destroy public property or harm others physically. 

"Society has different opinions during the fight for democracy. We have expressed our demand for democracy through non-violent actions. I absolutely believe that when we have equal rights that belong to everyone, it can build a foundation for people to solve conflicts." 

On support for Scholarism, a student movement that kicked off the recent protests:

"The three leaders of Occupy Central stand behind the students and we walk down the road together. After students started the [Sept. 24] class boycott, they also began what was the largest-scale occupation of Civic Square [a traditional focal point for Hong Kong protests] and the empty land opposite the square. We shared the same goals and methods. It was impossible for Occupy Central not to support the students. We were very clear that students were the leaders and we just stood behind to support them. But now it has morphed into a territory-wide movement initiated by citizens, and no individual, or organization is directing the movement. As the student leaders said, the movement has no leader, because everyone is a leader. 

"The people who can make the final decision of the direction of the movement are those who have power to fulfill the people’s demands."

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