Chan Kin-man and the Spirit of Dissent in Hong Kong

Chan Kin-man and the Spirit of Dissent in Hong Kong

Chan was given a sixteen-month sentence in April for his role in the pro-democracy protests that began in 2014. While he remains imprisoned, his successors have taken to the streets.

Chan Kin-man in 2017 (Flickr/inmediahk)

On this long and distant road, sometimes I feel that the road ahead is boundless and obscured, and sometimes the light is very dim. What can I do in this dark night? All we can do is look at the stars.Chan Kin-man, November 14, 2018

The best panel I attended at the 2015 Association for Asian Studies meeting in Chicago was on dissent. Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), was a fitting person to include in the session, which featured a mix of activists, journalists, and academics. He was one of the three main organizers of Occupy Central with Peace and Love, a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign that morphed into the Umbrella Movement when Joshua Wong and other student activists in their late teens and early twenties began to take leading roles in the struggle.

At the panel, Chan described many of the Hong Kong youths around Wong’s age he knew. They were courageous and committed, he said, and did not fear the police. They used umbrellas to shield their faces from pepper spray and tear gas, the action that gave their struggle its name. Many were, however, scared of one thing: their parents finding out they were cutting classes to stay on the streets.

In the wake of last week’s events, I wonder if Chan still believes there are many students in Hong Kong who are more afraid of their parents than the police. Unfortunately, I can’t ask him what he thinks. The gentle, sixty-year-old social scientist I met in Chicago is currently serving a sixteen-month sentence in a maximum security prison. So, too, is Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai, another member of the original Occupy triumvirate. (The third member, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, was shown leniency in part due to his advanced age of seventy-three.)

In early April, Chan and Tai were found guilty of two public nuisance charges linked to their role in the demonstrations of 2014 and were sentenced to extended jail time weeks later. Both were taken from the courtroom in handcuffs after making statements that made it clear they had no regrets about risking their livelihoods and freedom in a struggle to bring an expanded form of electoral democracy to Hong Kong, opening up the nomination process for chief executive elections beyond an elite committee. Chan testified that “the spirit of civil disobedience is not merely about the occupation of a location. The most important thing about the spirit is the real self-sacrifice of the participants in order to move society to be concerned about injustice.” Their overarching goal was to protect the greater degree of civil liberties and other freedoms that exist in their city than in any urban center on the Chinese mainland.

The big news of the start of this week has been the early release from jail of Hong Kong’s youngest and most internationally famous political prisoner, the now twenty-three-year-old Wong, who has begun adding his voice to the chorus calling for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign. There has been almost no talk of Chan and Tai.

A lot has changed in the nearly five years since the Umbrella Movement took off. Last Wednesday, the police not only used pepper spray and tear gas but also fired rubber bullets at protesters. On the previous two Sundays, the local streets have filled with enormous crowds containing not only youthful faces, but also many people old enough to be their parents or grandparents. On Friday, inspired in part by the widely disliked Lam presenting herself as a loving “mother” to the people of Hong Kong, several thousand women clad in black staged a mothers sit-in to express their concern with the mistreatment of young protesters earlier in the week.

The current protests in Hong Kong were triggered by anger at an extradition law that would make local residents vulnerable to prosecution on the mainland, where there is no independent judiciary and few legal protections of any kind. Chan and Tai were convicted by a Hong Kong court. It is no accident, though, that one of the first significant demonstrations against the extradition law took place in late April, in the wake of their sentencing. Local activists, as well as others who were simply familiar with the men and their activities, saw their sentencing as a travesty of justice, given how overwhelmingly peaceful the 2014 protests were and how consistently the Occupy organizers urged participants to stick to nonviolent tactics and remain open to compromise. It is hard for many who care about the fate of Hong Kong civil society to see such principled figures as Chan and Tai as anything other than political prisoners. It seems logical to conclude that they are in prison now because pressure was put on the courts to punish people whose actions angered Beijing and local power holders striving to stay in the good graces of China’s rulers.

There are other questions I’d ask Chan if I could. I’d like to quiz him about his views on various forms of resistance, and whether he imagines a different set of tactics could have brought better results in 2014. I would like his opinion on the difference between the current largely leaderless movement and the Umbrella protests. I wonder what he thinks the future holds for the city about which he cares so deeply.

I am also curious about what he makes of the use of familial symbols in the protests—and not just the clever Cantonese word play mocking Lam’s presentation of herself as having maternal affection for Hong Kong, or of a noted political cartoonist presenting the chief executive as caring only for one “child,” the police. Pop singer turned bold activist Denise Ho, for example, who is midway in age between Chan and the youngest activists on the streets, celebrated Wong’s release with a tweet reading “our kid is back.” At a time when there is a lot of biblical imagery in the air in Hong Kong, with hymns sung by crowds, it sounds like the welcoming home of an especially worthy prodigal son.

While we cannot hear Chan speak now, we can get a sense of how he would answer some of these questions from the final lecture he gave at CUHK last November, as he took early retirement before standing trial. It drew an enthusiastic crowd of some 700 people to a room supposed to hold a maximum of 500. A video of it is available on YouTube, with the mostly Cantonese presentation accompanied by English subtitles. A translated transcript of it was published by China Digital Times and then later reposted with added contextual commentary on the China Heritage website. Chan drew many laughs with his speech, as he did in Chicago in 2015. But he also cried as he opened his talk. “At the moment of my departure,” he told the crowd, “I can honestly say I have no resentment and no sorrow. . . . I am utterly grateful that I could study here, that this place gave me a chance to teach countless students and contribute to society, so today I only have a thankful heart.”

He movingly described how his interest in studying inequality—Chan came from a poor family—led him to thinking about the struggle for democracy. He named many of the figures he has turned to over the years for inspiration and understanding, from Henry David Thoreau to Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela.

One person he does not mention is the Polish journalist and former prisoner of conscience Adam Michnik. He has been on my mind lately. As I recently wrote in The Atlantic, I am interested in the parallels (and significant differences) between Solidarity’s protests during the Cold War and Hong Kong actions now. In a chapter from Letters from Prison and Other Essays, Michnik explains why in the early 1980s he refused to take up the Polish government’s offer of letting him out of prison, providing he agreed to leave his homeland. Chan has not been offered a similar deal, but presumably he could have left Hong Kong before standing trial, perhaps simply even stayed in the United States in 2015 after taking part in that Association for Asian Studies meeting.

At the end of a 1982 letter, Michnik looks back to Solidarity’s early high point before the wave of arrests came that sent him to prison and placed the country under martial law. That moment made me think of the few inspiring days I spent in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, and then again early this month—and what I have seen as I have watched coverage of the latest protests since returning to California. “[T]hose months,” writes Michnik, marked a time that “you would exchange for no others in your life, and for which you have been prepared to pay with years in jail.” I did not risk jail myself, but I felt that spirit of courage among the people from Hong Kong I met. Michnik saw “people yearning for free and true words, people taking in those words as if they were the communion wafer, people with radiant faces and trusting eyes—and you know that no one will be able to crush all this with tanks. And you know that you are not going to see faces like those on a Parisian boulevard.” Switching to the first person, he ends the letter by saying that “it is not courage that makes me choose prison instead of banishment. If anything, I am making this choice out of fear. Out of the fear that by saving my neck I may lose my honor.”

I look forward to asking Chan what he thinks of this passage. Does it capture Chan’s feelings as well? Was the thought of being far from such “radiant faces” also what convinced him to stay behind? Until I get to ask the imprisoned public intellectual questions like these, I am cheered by reports I have heard that Chan is keeping despair at bay in jail. In the spirit of his last lecture, in which he presents his life as an unending search for understanding, he is devoting himself to reading widely and offering his help as an English language tutor to his fellow prisoners.

When I think of Chan, I find myself hoping against hope that there are at least some occasions, even on these very dark nights, that he is able somehow to catch a glimpse of the stars.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (third edition, 2018). He is currently writing a short book on Hong Kong for the Columbia Global Reports series and is a member of the Dissent editorial board.