Law don turns 'subversive' to spur democracy

Law don turns 'subversive' to spur democracy
Dr Benny Tai has become a household name after the publication of his newspaper column, headlined “Civil disobedience, the most lethal weapon”, on Jan 16. He is now in the front line of the city’s pro-democracy movement.

He is the bespectacled mild-mannered law academic who writes a weekly newspaper column that, by his own admission, was not very well-read in the past.

Few readers wrote in. Perhaps because of his "too academic and dry" language, he mused.

But a piece on Jan 16 last year lit a fuse, making Dr Benny Tai a household name in Hong Kong.

In the article titled "Civil disobedience, the most lethal weapon", the law professor specialising in constitutional law at Hong Kong University outlined a plan to push for "true democracy".

As a last resort, he wrote, people power will be galvanised. Up to 10,000 will break the law and "occupy" Central to debilitate Hong Kong's financial district to pile pressure on the government.

The idea has since earned the 49-year-old, previously seen as a moderate intellectual, a controversial front-line position in the city's pro-democracy movement - and Beijing's angry denunciation.

Beijing has promised Hong Kong universal suffrage, and constitutional reform is under way to allow for direct elections by 2017. But pro-democracy advocates worry that there will not be genuine choice at all, given Beijiing's insistence on a committee to pre-select candidates; it has said that only those who "love China, love Hong Kong" can run - taken to mean a loyal supporter of the Communist Party.

To demonstrate their opposition, Dr Tai and two others - civil society academic Chan Kin Man and Baptist pastor Chu Yiu Ming - started the "Occupy Central with Love and Peace" campaign. The movement organised a mock poll last month that saw nearly 800,000 Hong Kongers voting for their desired democratic model, in defiance of Beijing.

If the government does not respond with what Dr Tai terms an election method of "international standards", Occupy Central will take place. The idea became one around which the fatigued and fractured pro-democracy movement coalesced and, not surprisingly, spooked Beijing, which did not take kindly to being strong- armed.

Beijing issued a White Paper last month to make it clear who's boss, while a former official, Mr Zhou Nan, raised the spectre of the People's Liberation Army moving in to clear the streets if chaos breaks out.

Not all who want to see Hong Kong's democracy bid succeed are on Dr Tai's side. He has been called naive for allowing radicals to hijack the agenda. For instance, all options in the referendum incorporate public nomination, leaving more moderate proposals out in the cold. So how did a law academic end up a "subversive"?

In an interview with the local media shortly after his article was published, Dr Tai explained it thus: "It is unlikely that Beijing will grant us genuine universal suffrage or public nomination, so we need to deploy civil disobedience by using numerical force."

xueying@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 07, 2014.
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