Chan Kin-man: Don’t Forget the Lamplighters: Paying Respects to the Initiators
Chan Kin-man’s final lecture at Chinese University of Hong Kong
Delivered on November 14, 2018
Having taught for more than 20 years, I feel confident at the lectern. However, today is the first time I am nervous. Just now my mind was a blank slate, I didn’t know what I should say tonight as I’m very stirred up. I’ve seen many classmates–old and new–and many friends, especially comrades from Occupy Central. I am utterly thankful to you all for coming to support me, so I’m very moved.
I’d like to speak a bit in Mandarin. I especially want to thank those friends who came from afar, there are maybe seven or eight friends who flew over from Taiwan and will have to rush home tomorrow morning for class. There’s also a group of friends from the mainland, and some from Australia, who all came just for tonight. So thank you all so much.
For the many who arrived tonight, aside from wanting to hear my final class, I think they also wanted to use this opportunity to express their support for the Umbrella Movement. I also take this opportunity to say, there are several Occupy organizers here who will face trial next Monday. I’d like everyone to send their regards [applause]: Benny Tai, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Tommy Cheung, Tanya Chan, Shiu Ka-chun, Raphael Wong.
I’ve walked an especially long road with Benny Tai and Reverend Chiu Yiu-ming, and have vividly seen their altruism. Thank you so much. [applause]
I’d like to give a special thanks to my mother-in-law. She’s more than 80-years old, and she supports this movement [applause]. During Occupy, I slept at Admiralty many nights. Every day, she brought me hot soup to eat, and even came to Admiralty to hand out flyers. Over 80, and most impressive of all, she didn’t once complain about how much stress I was bringing to her daughter. Where there’s a mother, of course there’s a daughter, and this daughter is also very strong. I am immensely grateful for my wife [applause].
I’m extremely grateful to be giving this speech. Chow Po-chung gave me flowers for the first time, my students were all giving flowers for the first time. As a man, I was surprised to be receiving two bouquets for the first time. My trial begins on Monday, I’ll have to go to court every day until the end of December, then I’ll have to wait for the verdict. The outcome is extremely unclear because we can’t see any guidelines, we don’t know who will be jailed and who won’t be. Under such unclear circumstances, I’d rather travel light. I don’t want to create too much confusion for my classmates and my family, so I’ve already resigned from the university, and the university approved my early retirement on January 1 2019. With the trial beginning soon, these are my last three days on campus, so this is a perfect time to bid everyone farewell.
At the moment of my departure, I can honestly say I have no resentment and no sorrow. I can only say that today I am very moved, far more than I could have imagined. I was very calm during Occupy—this is the first time I’ve been comparatively stirred-up. In this moment I can only feel grateful. 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. [sobs, applause]
I’d like to also express thanks for some of the books and people who inspired me. I’d like to especially share with my classmates and friends the books and people that deeply influenced me during my college years. I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the enlightenment they offered.
In 1979, I arrived at the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a student. As I’ve walked such a long road, when it comes to talking about enlightening books and people, I might be leaving some things out. But, every book, every person, has really all been a small lantern lighting my life, guiding me forward through the darkness one step at a time, especially on the road to fighting for democracy. When all is said and done, what were the events, people, and books that made me think that I could completely invest myself? I hope that I am able to share this with everyone.
The Initiation of Social Awareness — Golden Jubilee Incident
The first item. While I was taking college preparatory courses, something happened in Hong Kong which became a turning point in my life. This event is known as the “Golden Jubilee Incident.” In front of the school gate an older student who had already graduated handed me a leaflet and said, “Chan Kin-man, you’re the president of the student union. Now, amid the Golden Jubilee Incident, we are going to go on strike. You need to declare your position on the matter.”
I said: “Declare my position, I’m only a secondary school student?!” Holding a leaflet and being asked to declare my position, I totally didn’t understand.
It was the 70s then, it wasn’t easy for people like me to enter university. At my school, the humanities track sent one student to university, and the science group sent another. If you studied hard, you were unlikely to be in the student union. Those with no chance to go to university went into the student union. I entered the student union and acted as its president, making me the least likely to test into college.
I went back to campus and asked the headmaster why there was a senior student outside campus handing out leaflets about the Golden Jubilee Incident and asking for my position. He said, “You don’t have to pay attention to this, these people are doing things to mess up Hong Kong.”
“Mess up Hong Kong,” sound familiar? [audience laughs] I left and continued to ruminate. I thought: No way, we only have one person who tested into CUHK, and we only take the entrance exam for CUHK, back then nobody dared try to test into HKU. Back then we saw those who tested into university as heroes, so how could he be messing up Hong Kong? I felt uncomfortable holding that leaflet, and began to scan it. It turned out there was an assembly that Sunday in Victoria Park, so I thought, why don’t I go and participate, to learn more clearly about what was going on. But how could I have the gall to participate in a political assembly? Someone of my family background, with such little guidance, I mustn’t go trying to understand outside events.
I didn’t dare to go, but as I was looking over the paper I learned that there was a nature drawing competition. So I took my two younger brothers to my mother and said, I’ll take these two to Victoria Park for the drawing competition [laughter]. I settled them down on a grassy slope, set up the sketchpad, told them not to wander and to start drawing, then I ran to attend the first assembly of my life. Don’t you go about criticizing me—those two later went on to study fine art and design [laughter, applause], all because of that time I initiated them [laughter].
I went to sit at a Victoria Park pavillion to listen to the speeches. As I was listening I thought the people speaking on stage were making a lot of sense. At the time I really didn’t know who these people were, but many years later I realized that man was Szeto Wah. Not only did I not know that at the time, but at that I also didn’t know that the student strike organizer was sitting right there, Professor Wong Hin Wah [applause]. He later became a professor at our university, but at that time I didn’t know any of these people.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, why was that? I was preparing to find a job after secondary school. I felt very perplexed, I didn’t know what to do. I also became aware that I couldn’t judge such an incident. Why had the principal said they were messing up society, but I thought that they were making sense? They were only requesting that the school become more open and transparent, why couldn’t that be?
Very rarely do I suffer from insomnia, but that night my mind was turning over and over. I think that night was a turning point in my life: how would I face my life’s path? I made the decision that I wanted to go to university [laughter], ah, and that decision was a very important one [laughter]. I was admitted to university. One high school classmate saw my gaokao results and said the whole class needed to put money into having my exam reviewed [laughter]. He said no way that an ordinary person from the lower reaches could suddenly get so many “A”s. It might be hard to believe, but the fact is I felt that I needed to study—that’s how profound the Golden Jubilee was for me.
I wanted to study sociology because I didn’t understand society. But actually, I didn’t know what sociology was. I felt that because I didn’t understand society it would be important to study sociology. But most importantly, I felt that studying could cultivate the capacity for independent thought. This was my clear goal before I entered university.
So this event had a profound and long-lasting influence on my life, I could also see that I’d been so deeply affected by this social movement that I finally chose to study social movements. The meaning of a social movement doesn’t only lie in whether it can immediately change the system, but it turns out that even a bystander can be deeply impacted. Wong Hin Wah probably never knew.
I want to go deeper, was it just the social movement that influenced me? No, social movements are very important, but there is another thing that is also very important: the awakening of faith.
The Awakening of Faith – Unamuno’s “Tragic Sense of Life”
In high school I began to have faith. I often asked myself: What exactly am I to do in this world? How can I live a meaningful life? At that time, after I had contact with God or Heaven, I felt if I walked the correct path I would have the power. Why had the Golden Jubilee Incident moved me so much? It was because I’d always been mulling over one question: in the end, how should I live my life?
I asked myself, I only understand one thing—painting—so I began to consider whether I should make painting my profession. I was very serious, I went down to Chungking Mansions where back then there weren’t so many curry shops. There were lots of people there painting “forgeries,” that is sunsets, palm trees, those kinds of things. I asked them if they’d take me on as an apprentice, and inquired about the pay. Later, a high school teacher said that their painting had become very mechanized, that you wouldn’t learn to properly paint. I was very scared because I was fond of painting. If I couldn’t paint, what would I do? So I continued to feel perplexed, I began to ask myself about my own life, and began to feel that I needed to live a meaningful life. This is why I was so touched when I witnessed the Golden Jubilee Incident.
Many people have asked me what religion I believe in. The other “two sons” of Occupy are both Christians, and we’ve gotten along together for a long time. They’ve allowed me to see how religious belief is embodied in life, and so many people think that I too am Christian. But once, a few mainland friends made a special trip to bring me a Buddhist rosary, because they saw that when I was first arrested I brought a Buddhist scripture with me into the police station. In fact, it was the biography of Master Hong Yi.
Am I a Christian? Students have asked me this for many years, and I usually don’t answer.
I can only say, I am a person who has faith but has no religion.
Why say that? As I’ve said, religious questions are very important to me, they make me sensitive to society. When I entered university, I felt that first I’d deal with these religious questions. I couldn’t stop thinking. Every time I went to church by bus, I’d forget to get off in time and would have to turn around. Because I was often pondering religious questions, especially when I started to study philosophy (my minor was philosophy), many rational problems often perplexed me.
Say, for example, does God exist? Can you negate or prove this? What is sin? If the snake in the Garden of Eden was also God’s creation, what is the nature of sin? If the Bible says so, is that really sin? When all is said and done, do we have free will? If some people say you have sin because you have free will, does free will contradict God’s omnipotence and omniscience? These are all questions us philosophy people will bump into. I unceasingly racked my brain. Studying sociology was very clear, I knew that people from different cultures had different opportunities to come into contact with Christianity; even within the same society, different communities’ opportunities to come in contact aren’t the same. Within different cultures’ different religions, there are the same miracles and marvels; likewise, many people are inspired by their religions to practice righteousness and pity for the world. This is not limited to Christianity.
My mind has endlessly struggled with these questions, I could ruminate over this for a whole day and still not reach any conclusions, and I’d be unable to take action. In my first and second years in university, I reflected on many of these types of questions, and read incessantly. This eventually allowed me to come upon some books which deeply, deeply influenced my life.
The first book is “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Unamuno. While preparing to deliver this lecture, I sought out this book that so deeply affected me while in university. Decades later, I still keep it by my side. I also remember that after I finished reading this book, I concluded three things.
I attempted to use many methods to understand my faith, and finally this book told me that human reason is quite limited; some experiences are very profound, for example religious experience, but if you want to prove it or attempt to tell others about it, you find you can’t, even from a very philosophical point of view. If you try to use reason to verify, many times it doesn’t work. So my first lesson, which I wrote in the margins of that book, was: “People think that faith is not enough to make us self-sufficient, so they seek reason, but reason conversely rejects faith.” This is the opinion that I wrote in that book’s margin back then.
The second item is very difficult for many people to accept, but for me in the end was easy to grasp. I often say, and this book also said, “I believe in such and such,” but that actually means “I long for such and such.” You say you believe in something, but it’s hard to find a rational basis for this; what it more deeply reflects is in fact that I very much “hope” to believe in something, that you “want” to believe something. Unamuno said that the nature of belief is actually a question of will, and not a question of reason. Why do we long for God? It’s because humanity suffers hardship; we see that beautiful things are transient. Perhaps you saw a loved one suddenly depart from this world, and you want to meet them again. You see that in this world righteousness is sometimes not obtained or upheld. Some of that which you long for, you long for eternally, and that longing for something else is also possible, longing for a next life, longing for heaven, but that actually is a reflection of suffering in this world, hence there is longing.
For the past many years I haven’t told students that, in my opinion, “I believe” is actually “I hope.” You hope to see it, that’s it.
The third item I learned about religious attitude and form came from one sentence in this book, and moved me greatly. Unamuno said, some people sit inside a church as a formality, with their thoughts wandering, dozing off or whatever. Other people kneel in heresy before an idol and confess. The theologian Unamuno said, actually, the former are worshipping an idol, while the latter are worshipping God. According to him, the outer appearance of a religion isn’t important, what is important is attitude.
This wording deeply moved me as a sociology student, and as a result I started saying I am “a person of faith but without a religion.” Perhaps for many this style of faith is very uncertain, but for me it sets my mind at ease. If you tell me an absolute truth, sorry, it would make me feel quite uncomfortable, but if you tell me, actually we are very uncertain, what is known is very small, we are very insignificant, using these kinds of phrases, it sets me at ease.
So I am very thankful that in my first year of university I came across this book. The second book that deeply affected my religiosity was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers From Prison.” I remember the type of bookstore I was at back then, I often bought books like this to read, the more I went the more depressed I’d feel, repeatedly seeing that religious language as I flipped through the pages, until I accidentally bought “Letters and Papers From Prison.”
The Initiation of Religious Belief – Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers From Prison
Bonhoeffer was a German chaplain around the time of World War II. He was entirely different from the rest of the German church, which at that time stood on Hitler’s side. Basically only him and a small group confronted the rest of the church. This was the question that his work dealt with:
“Christians must invest in the world to practice their faith. The church must renounce its own comfort and privilege and dare to practice values that differ from the world, and stand with those people suffering hardship.”
This left a deep impression upon me. Could the church really dare to be different from the mainstream values of society? I felt that no, it couldn’t. I saw the church of this day and age, and it was very much in line with the mainstream social values.
Bonhoeffer often asked a question: at this time and place, who is Jesus? That is, if Junius Ho was Christian, he would say “kill, don’t pardon,” and there was Benny Tai, another Christian; Bonhoeffer would ask, if Jesus were on this earth, which of the two is Jesus? Is it Junius Ho, or is it Benny Tai?
He often asked these kinds of questions, hoping that faith isn’t an abstract thing. One had to take a practical view in questioning the meaning of faith. With so many people before us, who can live like Jesus? His religious outlook is that he doesn’t accept that the world and the spiritual are entirely separate, that you can gaze at heaven while not looking at the ground.
‘Every Christian must be fully human by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some spiritual realm.’
It’s a shame that Bonhoeffer died after he finished writing “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The outline of everything he wanted to write next is in this book, and it’s been a great inspiration to me, but he never got to flesh out those ideas.
After Occupy Central, after we’d been arrested and began awaiting trial, Raphael Wong and I had a heart-to-heart. He’d been in prison before, he knew what it was like. He said you can bring six books with you to prison, so I made haste and ordered some books [laughter]. Intellectuals are so annoying, our first question is, can we read in jail? We can, so I ordered a pile of books to read in prison. The first book I ordered was Bonhoeffer’s biography, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas, but two months later I still haven’t gone to prison and I’ve already read the entire 600-page book [laughter]. Now I have to order one more book. I have to really think about which one to get.
I felt the most urgency to read that first book because, when I was at university, the one thing from Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” that influenced me the most, the one that’s always stuck with me, is this: “I want a true church,” not “I want a true election” [laughter]. He believed that the German church stood on the wrong side of history, that standing with Hitler was totally wrong.
How could this be, you ask? That’s how it was back then. The mainstream German church was entirely on Hitler’s side. Bonhoeffer said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” Boarding the wrong train is a disaster. He would rather break from the church and make a new spiritual community.
He often asked what the “true church” was. Faith is not just about the physical church, the rituals, the pastors, and so on. He believed the crux of the “true church” at the time was the Jewish question: Do you stand with the Jews? When the Jews are persecuted, what does the Christian church have to say?
In his interpretation, even though the Jews do not believe in Jesus—they surely don’t believe in Jesus, they consider him to be just a prophet and not the son of God—they are still a part of the church. If you can’t protect the Jews within this space, then you fundamentally cannot practice faith in the present sense. This was the most important test of the church. You can imagine the rift between Bonhoeffer and the church. [Read more about Bonhoeffer’s stance on “the Church and the Jewish Question” from the Holocaust Museum.]
As characterized in the book, Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached to the very end. He was even involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Shouldn’t the pastor have stood for “love and peace” like Chu Yiu-ming? [laughter] Typical “lefties.” Bonhoeffer even went on to be a double agent, plotting the assassination with first-class military officers while helping the secret police spy on the church at the same time. This actually protected him from arrest and allowed him to continue his underground work. He would even endure humiliation, because he believed that God had called on him to kill Hitler. Just try to imagine a pastor like this.
One of Hitler’s generals plotted the assassination with them. They planned to bomb one of Hitler’s meetings, and that officer planted the bomb in the meeting room. Many people died, but Hitler was unscathed, because two large iron plates stood on either side of his desk. At a press conference that afternoon, Hitler said he couldn’t be blown up because God had chosen him; then the German church issued a statement indicating that Hitler was indeed chosen by God. You can just imagine the church stooping to this level. Today no one blinks at the direction the church is moving in. The church can be breathtakingly wrong.
Bonhoeffer was tough. If I were him, I would have been disheartened; I admire him. When such a demon survived the bombing, Bonhoeffer still had faith.
I think that if they had killed Hitler, we would have only had a Hitler Number Two, because the Nazi Party had not yet lost its power. The Nazis would have called it a conspiracy against them, and would have installed another Hitler.
Friends, time is not something we can hold on to. We can only do what we think is right, just as Nazism was only truly destroyed after Nazi Germany was defeated, and that extreme German nationalism destroyed along with it. For every thing there is a season. So don’t just think, why hasn’t our action borne fruit? Why are those bad eggs still in power? For every thing there is a season.
Before Germany lost the war, Hitler sent Bonhoeffer to the gallows, and just before the execution he said, “This is the end.” As I see it: the beginning of life. A doctor in the prison at the time said he had never met anyone with so much faith in God; and an American prisoner of war said the most morally upright person he had ever met in his life was none other than Bonhoeffer.
That’s the person Bonhoeffer was, his whole life asking what is worthy of being called the church. In the end he even proposed the concept of “Religionless Christianity,” that is, if I don’t have a religion, can I still have Christian faith? These books had a profound impact on me. I feel very uncomfortable at church. Many of the people I see there keep their faith in a tiny box. They think if they don’t do well on exams they should ask God, if they’re jilted they should ask God. But when it comes to society, to history, they never think God has any role in these. The way the church squeezes faith into the crevice of the personal, it makes me very, very uncomfortable. It directly conflicts with how I think faith should be practiced.
So when I read Bonhoeffer, I felt like I’d found a voice in the church that I could stand behind. I remember I once in church went before the pastor after he had given his sermon and asked him, “Pastor, in today’s sermon you ran yourself ragged talking about the Trinity and so on, but why? I’m telling you, so many people are asleep, in such sweet sleep. Why do you go on about this all the time? Can’t you talk about anything related to our lives, to our society?
He brought me to the pulpit and wrote a note right there that said we can only spread the purest truth; I say, if that is the purest truth, I’d rather not hear it. I believe that faith needs vitality. So when I encountered Bonhoeffer’s writing, it really touched me.
Two Pastors Who Brought Faith and Community Together
At that time there were two pastors in Hong Kong whose sermons also touched me. One was Reverend Lo Lung Kwong, the other was Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. I listened to their sermons during my university years, listened to how they put faith into practice in the community. They were both in Chai Wan. At that time Hong Kong Island was the poorest district, home to many squatters living in shacks. They practiced their faith in that neighborhood. Those two really touched me.
Reverend Lo Lung Kwong and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming also had a deep impact on me. My first job out of university was at Reverend Lo’s community center. I remember at the job interview he asked whether I was a Christian. Everyone at his center was a Christian. I said, in my view a Christian is a humanitarian. Does that work for you? [laughter] The reverend replied, “OK la” [audience erupts into laughter] and hired me?!
I was the only so-called Christian working there who hadn’t returned to the church. I answered with Bonhoeffer’s response, that all should be for humanity. Actually, he saw that my university capstone project could be the source of data for their push to build a hospital in the Eastern District. Maybe Reverend Lo didn’t really care how I answered him. I thank him deeply for giving me the opportunity to work in the community.
Lessons from Faith—Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and His Teacher’s Reading List
But the bigger influence on me has surely been Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Reverend Chu has walked many paths with me, from the fight to build the hospital in the Eastern District and our work with AIDS patients; to creating the Democratic Development Network in 2002 and embarking on the fight for dual universal suffrage [direct elections of the chief executive and the Legislative Council], back when no one knew what we were talking about; to the 1 July protest in 2003, then to political reform, all the way to Occupy.
I think that pastors often play a certain role. It’s as if Providence summons us through the pastor, and the pastor goes and turns our ordinary lives upside-down. I had decided to wait until I got tenure and became a real professor before I got involved with social issues. Reverend Chu would do everything to keep me from following this plan [laughter], calling me all the time to come out, come out. But I’m grateful to him. If no one had pressured me, and I went through with my so-called life plan, I wouldn’t necessarily have put my life to the best use possible. So I am grateful to the Reverend.
What makes Reverend Chu so full of life, that he puts his faith to work for so much in society? I asked him, what was your theological training? He studied in Taiwan, which naturally had a big influence on him, first because he met his wife there. Second, he was taught by Reverend Chow Lien-hwa. I asked him, what did Reverend Chow have you read? It was the required summer reading for first year theology undergraduates.
You see, the reading wasn’t only some books on religion and Christianity. He read Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” there it is again; he read the biography of Gandhi, he could read work that has nothing to do with Christians; the biography of Albert Schweitzer, a missionary who practiced medicine in Africa and put his faith to use; the biography of Beethoven. These imparted to Reverend Chu pliable strength and powerful faith. I’m sure that Reverend Chow changed Reverend Chu’s life through these readings, and the reverend went on to influence many other people’s lives, so I thank you, Reverend. [applause]
Democratic Awakening—Wei Jingsheng and Beijing’s Democracy Wall Movement (1979)
At first I wanted to think about the issues of poverty and social inequality at university, because I came from a poor family. Since childhood I had never slept in a real bed—most of the time I slept in the corridor, or else on half of a bed, with goods to sell on the other half. My family home was a little factory.
My first real bed was in my university dormitory. It looked like a mansion to me. On top of that, it was Madame Ho Sin Hang’s dorm, and it had a view of the sea. The whole thing really hit me.
At first I really wanted to think about the problem of poverty, but in the end that wasn’t where I focused. Why is that? Because from 1979 until I graduated in 1983, in those four years things happened in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong that influenced the whole course of my life, even the books I read.
The first was in mainland China. In 1979, Wei Jingsheng and a group of intellectuals launched the Democracy Wall Movement. They put up big character posters on Xidan’s Democracy Wall and published underground grass-roots journals like Fertile Soil (沃土) and Exploration (探索). At that time Wei Jingsheng wrote the first big character poster. As a university student, seeing that really moved me. It was titled “The Fifth Modernization.”
At the time Deng Xiaoping put forth the “Four Modernizations”: industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense. Wei Jingsheng thought that wasn’t enough, that there had to be a Fifth Modernization, that is the modernization of politics. Think about it—why did the Cultural Revolution happen? It was because there were no checks on power. The errors of one man, Mao Zedong, could turn into a national disaster. So there had to be a fifth modernization.
There’s nothing new about this argument. In the Late Qing the discussion was whether the Westernization Movement was enough. After the First Sino-Japanese War, everyone thought that this type of modernization, limited to the utilitarian, was not going to save the country. Then we started to talk about reformism. Reformism also failed. After Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, people started to talk about revolution, but after the revolution it still wasn’t enough. Even with the establishment of so-called republican society, we still fell backward. And then we talked about a New Culture Movement, at the cultural level we had to walk ourselves into another big box. We returned to the most basic argument. How could talk of only four modernizations be enough?
After I read this, as a university student, I really agreed with Wei Jingsheng’s big character poster. Then he wrote the second big character poster, “Do We Want Democracy Or a New Dictatorship?” This one attacked Deng Xiaoping. At the time he knew the authorities would crack down. He said you all worship Deng Xiaoping right now and say Reform and Opening Up is good, but without a democratic system, Deng could become another dictator. So he asked, “Do we want democracy or a new dictatorship?”, and as a result he was arrested.
During the trial, there was a person called Liu Qing who transcribed the entirety of the court proceedings. At the time, Liu Qing disagreed with Wei Jingsheng. He thought they shouldn’t attack Deng Xiaoping. Now it’s Reform and Opening—at least Deng is willing to reform. Why be so radical and lash out even at him? But Liu Qing and Wei Jingsheng did agree on one thing: if someone is arrested, we still need to protect that person. The first time I truly understood what political tolerance is—that I may “disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I learned this from Liu Qing.
Liu Qing secretly transcribed the entire court proceedings. As a student, when I read the whole transcript I was shocked—how could they rule like this? The most memorable part was that judge said: the constitution speaks of the people’s democratic dictatorship. You, Wei Jingsheng, wish to oppose the people’s democratic dictatorship. You therefore are a privileged element. You have overstepped the constitution, therefore you are a privileged element. In the end Wei Jingsheng was sentenced to between ten and 20 years. At the time I felt that he’d said what was on my mind, but he was going to prison, while I sat in my dorm room eating candy. I felt that he was going to prison for me. That moved me so much. There are so many people doing so many things right now that no one seems to notice, but when I read these articles, I couldn’t help but be moved.
Another person who had a deep influence on me is Hu Ping. Hu Ping was a student at Peking University [“Beida”]. He’d published a lengthy piece in the underground journal Fertile Soil titled “On Freedom of Speech.” He also ran in the local election for the People’s Congress in Haidian District. He was a student at Beida, and I was also a university student. Seeing a student over there writing an article that thoroughly argued for the need to protect freedom of speech, who had the guts to run for office, and who won, all of this touched me.
What did he say back then? In fact plenty of people knew about freedom of speech, and there wasn’t really anything else to say about it. But in our current moment in Hong Kong, rereading what my “elder brother student” wrote, what we say still has meaning:
“Someone who has lost the right to express their thoughts and aspirations is bound to become a slave and a tool.”
“What is freedom of speech? It means the freedom to express the full range of opinions. The good and the bad, the right and the wrong, we must embrace it all.
“Some argue that no leader of a country would allow people to question the fundamental system supporting the political regime, therefore opposition to the system should not be allowed. This is another classic argument that fails to distinguish between speech and action.”
“People may hold any opinion towards the constitution, including objection. This is endowed by the constitution itself.”
It seems that many people in Hong Kong don’t really understand these arguments. At every turn students are stopped from speaking and told they are violating the constitution, right? Hu Ping explained it long ago. But never mind the mainland, even in Hong Kong it seems that a lot of people don’t get it. What makes this essay so profound is that we can pragmatically apply its lessons to the real world.
Back then I was in CUHK’s student union. After Reform and Opening, the first [student] exchange group to visit China was the one I organized. I went to Sun Yat-sen University and Fudan to gather information. First I went to Sun Yat-sen U. to find my counterpart. I took a train, then a bus. After many miles and hours on the road, I made it to Sun Yat-sen U. I casually knocked on doors to inquire, and ended up at the foreign affairs office, who said they would call on the Youth League committee, that is, to speak with the Communist Youth League. Okay! I sat down and waited.
When the guy from the Youth League arrived, I was shocked. Woah! How could this guy be so old? [laughter] Shouldn’t he be like me? Aren’t students in their teens and twenties? How could this 30- or 40-something they brought to talk to me be my counterpart? So he was the only one who “counterparted” with me.
We discussed activities to organize for the student delegation. I suggested a debate. Our debate about the debate went something like this:
He asked, “What’s a debate?”
I explained, “There are two sides, pro and con, and a judgment at the end to determine who wins.”
“Great! What are the topics, schoolmate?”
“How about we debate whether socialism is good or bad?” [laughter]
“No, you can’t mess with ideology!!”
So I replied, “Don’t worry, how about this, the Chinese students support capitalism and the Hong Kong students support communism. Sound good?”
“That messes with ideology even more!” [laughter]
In the end we scratched the debate and planned just to have a boat race [laughter], with two big paddle boats in a lake.
In those days if you went to Guangzhou you couldn’t come back on the same day. There was no high-speed rail, no Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, so they arranged for me to stay in a dorm for one night. I shared a room with another guest, a professor from Hunan. We chatted that night and got to the issue of free speech. He said it’s right for the country to control speech, because there is some speech that is a danger to society, that we shouldn’t let harmful ideas spread. I immediately answered him with a point straight out of Hu Ping’s playbook. He seemed to think I made sense and was sore about it [laughter]. Sitting to one side, he thought for a moment and found another reason to argue with me, and I sparred with him again; I challenged him: “Who decides what’s right and what’s wrong in the end? And what if the government is the one that’s wrong? Can the government be wrong?” He fumbled again. Can our government be wrong?
We kept egging each other on. At two in the morning we’d been arguing all night and hadn’t gone to sleep [laughter], so finally I baited him, because I really wanted to sleep [laughter]. I asked him a simple question: I was reading the paper on my way from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and saw that there’s a student strike in Changsha, a student movement. Do you know about it? He fumbled again and said he didn’t know. Then I said: You came here from Hunan and don’t even know, and I knew about it back in Hong Kong. Do you think that’s normal?
Without a word, he quietly moved towards the bed [laughter]. I reckon he stared at the ceiling all night, while I slept soundly. Hu Ping had given me a good “bullet” to bring to debates on free speech. These basic values, which I had assumed were self-evident, turn out to be not so—it makes me really sad. I thought that only in the 80s were these up for debate, but in our current moment, whether we’re in the academy or in society at large, we all have to relearn them. This is frightening.
Democratic Awakening—The Kaohsiung Incident (1979)
The second event concerns Taiwan. There are a lot of friends from Taiwan here today. Thank you, your history has influenced me profoundly.
First off, there was a lecture at university where Lu Keng, the journalist whose nickname was “Boss Loud-Mouth,” brought a foreign woman from Taiwan to speak at a small venue at CUHK. This woman was Linda Gail Arrigo, the wife of the Kaohsiung Incident leader Shih Ming-teh. As a student, her talk shocked me. Why? She was wearing a sash with her name written on it. We didn’t have elections in Hong Kong in the early 80s. I’d never encountered this kind of political figure.
She was talking about democracy and mentioned a certain incident when Lu Keng, who was right next to her, suddenly slammed the lectern. Then they started to argue. Lu said to her, “It’s fine for you to talk about democracy, but I will not tolerate any discussion of Taiwan independence,” and with a bang they were arguing again; I was a student, and I sat there dumbstruck. How could these two distinguished guests just launch into each other? I knew that Taiwan was in a turbulent period and that dissidents had taken a stand against the government, but with one brush with the question of Taiwan independence and their pro-democratic camp divided right before my eyes.
I went straight home and pored over the journals. Magazines like “The 1970s” had a few articles about Taiwan. Why had Arrigo run over to Hong Kong? It turned out she was an exile. The Kaohsiung Incident happened in Taiwan in 1979, when a group of intellectuals founded a press [and magazine] called Formosa. Actually, they created a [political] association and party through the press. But simply because back then you couldn’t form a political party, they used the press to gather the opposition. These “non-party persons” organized a protest on International Human Rights Day. In the middle of the march they were attacked. There were “lackeys” present, and the protesters were attacked by “crew cuts.” The police shone big lights on them, which created a tense atmosphere. Then the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and the mass arrests began. Among the crowd were eight leaders, who had to face a military tribunal.
There’s a photo from the tribunal that has stuck with me. In the photo are people who especially moved me. One is Shih Ming-teh, standing in the middle with the faintest smile; everyone knows this is a military tribunal, that the government intended to sentence him to death, and there he is with that faint curl at the corners of his mouth, facing the court with a smile of derision.
The other who impressed me the most is Huang Hsin-chieh. Why? He has a coat draped over his arm, giving him the air of an intellectual. At the time I saw that even intellectuals had to stand at the front, at this life-and-death moment, stoically facing the tribunal. This image has stayed with me all my life.
After that, thanks to pressure from the U.S. and the international press, Shih Ming-teh was finally given a life sentence, while the others got 12, 15 years. Their defense lawyer was Chen Shui-bian. These big events in far-off Taiwan had a huge influence on me just when I was a first-year university student.
Democratic Awakening – The Problem Facing Hong Kong’s Future
What is once again happening in Hong Kong? China and Britain continually negotiated Hong Kong’s future from the point I entered university in 1979 to when I graduated. At that time, my classmates and friends in the student union had debates, and most of the student union members advocated for democracy and also a return to China.
Nowadays, young people do not understand why one should accept a democratic reunification. Back then, there was no space to discuss self-determination, Hong Kong independence, or even Hong Kongers participating in Sino-British negotiations. Back then, with regards to both time and space, a democratic reunification was considered a rather advanced idea.
Even though I was quite a strong nationalist at the time, I still took the first exchange delegation to China. Despite being considerably nationalistic, I was about to send a group of people to the communist regime. I was very uncomfortable. What if they were persecuted? Why would you return to the mainland just for the sake of nationalism?
I pondered the value of nationalism, and decided it doesn’t have any intrinsic value. From a historical lens, nationalism could be combined with certain values. For example, during India’s struggle for independence, they spoke of democracy and human rights, just as they did in South Africa. But at some point, nationalism can suppress many of humanity’s values. For example, if you look at Bonhoeffer, he lived in Germany, but did he not call on the people’s patriotism? The entire Church is also patriotic, but it suppresses mankind’s crucial values.
Bonhoeffer said, “I pray for the failure of my country.” He prayed that his country would “PK” and hoped his country would be defeated. His values didn’t really include nationalism—he had higher guiding principles, principles of value. I struggled with this matter at the time. Even though I was very concerned for the well-being of all of China, why should I have to accept Hong Kong returning to the mainland in this way?
So I proposed a motion at the delegates’ meeting. Chen Yaohua was also present as a delegate; I discussed that motion with him. What was our proposed motion? It was that while some places once belonged to China, it did not mean that they belonged to China forever. If we went by this logic, wouldn’t it be that South Korea would have to return to China? Wouldn’t it be that Vietnam would have to return as well? In some places, even if most of its residents are Chinese, they don’t necessarily belong to China. If that were so, would Singapore have to return to China?
Regarding the question of Hong Kong’s future, I believe that the student union should not have a fixed position. They should consult with their classmates, or even hold a campus-wide referendum. It was up to the students to decide. That was the motion I proposed. Even in a campus-wide referendum, I might’ve supported a democratic reunification, but I wondered: Why weren’t other classmates allowed to take part in crafting our declaration back then?
The motion was ultimately rejected, but that wasn’t important. The most important thing was that I started to think a lot. What is nationalism, really? What does it actually mean? Why have we historically put patriotism at such high levels of importance? I thought a great deal about these questions while in college.
This letter was a reply from Premier Zhao Ziyang to the students of Hong Kong University. What did he say? He said that what you call “democratic governance of Hong Kong” was as it should be by right. Benny Tai later became a student representative to the Basic Law Advisory Committee—it’s possible he’d been inspired by this letter.
As this was all happening simultaneously in three places on both sides of the strait, it made me want to discover my own life path, as I realized that these are issues that I should care about. In order to protect human rights and freedoms after Hong Kong returned to the mainland, we must fight for democracy. I realized this was my mission. I had to do this. I would remain in Hong Kong so as to safeguard its human rights and liberties from being harmed. We had to fight for universal suffrage.
The Inspiration for My Lifelong Career–Juan J. Linz
I had worked in the community for several years, and been campaign manager for two candidates. I eventually studied abroad at Yale University. At first, I wasn’t too sure what I would actually end up doing, I just had a highly general sense of my future. Would I be a scholar or would I go into politics? Would research or politics form my career? This was the very question posed by Max Weber: Will my lifelong career be in academia or politics? I didn’t know, but at the time, I thought that many politicians originated from Yale. Even if I ultimately didn’t go into academia, the fact that I came from this institution might help me run for office [laughter]. So I chose Yale University.
After I’d spent a year at Yale, I was very sure of my direction. This was because I met someone who touched me deeply: Professor Juan J. Linz, a well-known Spaniard studying the democratization of Spain. I felt that Spain’s democratization process was ideal, and hoped it would be replicated in China.
After Spain experienced a very bitter civil war, it finally successfully democratized in a very peaceful manner in the mid-1970s. Interaction between moderate forces inside and outside the system brought down both the conservatives within the system, and the hyper-radicals, who were mainly from the Communist Party. Then they found a middle path to bring the country towards democracy.
Chinese history shows that we have been long been entrapped in a vicious cycle of revolution. After each revolution, we always enter another period of dictatorship. How can we free ourselves from this cycle?
I wanted to study the theory of democratization with Juan Linz, especially how it applied to Spain’s democratization. Only then did I find out that Professor Linz was one of the few, and one of the most preeminent scholars of democratization theory.
Juan Linz made several highly important contributions. One of them was to not categorize systems of government. We now call those loathsome regimes “totalitarian,” “autocratic,” etc. However, he thinks we must proceed carefully, as totalitarianism and authoritarianism are different. When classifying regimes, we should pay attention to criteria, as there are different degrees. We should look at the degree of diversity in a society, such as whether its economy, society, and politics are diversified, whether there is a fixed ideology, which channels its leader has climbed up from, etc. He measured systems with many different criteria.
Why did he have to take such a painstaking approach? His research pointed out that many societies are not totalitarian, but authoritarian. He believed that examples of totalitarian societies were Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, etc. Later on, after numerous discussions with him, he also thought that China under Mao Zedong qualified. Every other regime was authoritarian. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism are very different. When a regime marches towards democracy, there are different probabilities of success, and for whether the newly democratic regime will fail or regress. Therefore, in order to know how to successfully democratize, we must know the regime’s starting point. I won’t elaborate further on this—I could talk about this for a whole semester.
His second contribution was his course on transitional regimes. We discussed the theory of democracy, and the process of some regimes transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. He essentially felt that totalitarian societies could not democratize. However, it is worth mentioning that while I was studying in 1988, even a scholar as famous as himself was completely unaware that the communist regime in Eastern Europe would disintegrate by the following year. Even a deeply knowledgeable scholar like himself did not anticipate a “Soviet and Eastern European wave.” He thought that the communist regime would not fall.
In November 1989, there was the Czech Velvet Revolution. At the end of 1989 in Eastern Europe, the communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Romania successively fell from power, and the Soviet Union subsequently split and collapsed.
Sometimes I am very sympathetic to my senior co-academics. In our department, it takes an average of ten years to complete a PhD. My senior classmates might’ve already been at the tail end of their dissertations explaining why these regimes are so stable [laughter]. But when it was nigh time to submit their papers, the regimes fell! [laughter]
Just like that, it turns out you didn’t know it was coming! Just like a thief sneaking into your house in the middle of the night, you didn’t know. When the regime was strong, even top scholars couldn’t see it coming. So Linz thought hard about this. He had originally divided the regimes into “totalitarian” and “authoritarian,” believing that totalitarian regimes couldn’t fall or democratize. But as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Soviet Union showed, this really wasn’t the case. Later, he re-examined this, and found that after totalitarian societies underwent a liberalization process, they were no longer totalitarian societies, but rather post-totalitarian. For example, if you look at Hungary before it collapsed, its economy was already highly liberalized. Rural areas of Poland had always been run by workers’ cooperatives—its economic lifeline was not controlled by the state. Additionally, the Church had existed for a long time, with 90% of Poles being Catholics. So upon gradual reconsideration, there will be more classifications, and one’s thinking will become more sophisticated.
He had another course about conditions needed for democracy. The stable transition from authoritarianism to democracy requires some conditions that not only help with the transition, but also help the fledgling democratic system not collapse after establishment. Even if it ultimately democratized, there must always be a push to deepen it.
He proposed five conditions. The first is civil society, the second is the rule of law, and the third is political society. Basically, there must be an opposition party, then a market, and finally an administratively effective and incorruptible unit. If you have these conditions, you can democratize smoothly; however, if these societal conditions are weak, even if a revolution establishes a democratic system, it will easily fall and collapse. Therefore, even if you sometimes feel you are not doing something related to democracy, as long as you are fulfilling these conditions, then you are laying the foundations of democracy.
Juan Linz’s written works were extremely agonizing. He was short and stout. During class, he would bring two stacks of mostly hardcover books, and place thirty books on the table, never once letting the students help him. When talking about Germany, he would pick up a book, read the content in German, and no one understood what he was talking about [laughter]. We looked at each other and thought he was so intriguing. We felt that Juan Linz was a walking encyclopedia. When he was studying at Columbia University, he wrote a paper for ten years, and even at 800 pages he was still not finished writing. His advisor, Seymour Martin Lipset, the father of American political sociology, felt so impatient that he said to him: “Enough! Don’t write any further!” Then he took it away, let the classmates help him tidy it up, and then submitted it [laughter]. At 800 pages, it became the longest doctoral thesis at Columbia University. So he often criticized my paper for only being 400 pages [laughter].
His works were very irksome annoying. Since he prattled on so tediously, many of his books and magazine articles couldn’t be published. All he could do was compress a great deal of his text in the footnotes. The actual text on each page only ran three to five lines; the rest were footnotes [laughter]. Most of the content had to be read in 10-point font [laughter]. As his students, we were better off—he would directly send us the full text to read.
The distinguishing feature of Juan Linz’s work is that within one page, the text only accounts for a few lines, while the rest are annotations.
Many of his articles have not been published, but everyone knows that he is very knowledgeable. There are some activities at Yale University where the professor sits down and shares, over sandwiches, why he became a scholar. I very clearly remember when he shared. He took out a small book and said to us students, “In all my life I’ve only written this one book. Everyone knows that I’ve written a lot of articles, but ultimately failed to publish them.”
Yale University also gave him the highest title of honor offered at Yale: the Sterling Professor. He said: “I’ve only written this one book.” Now, this would not happen at Chinese University of Hong Kong or Hong Kong University. This person would not get tenure [laughter]. Neither could God, since he only wrote one Bible [laughter].
So, holding this book, he said to us: “You should diligently do what you find meaningful, and write articles that you think are valuable. You don’t have to care too much. I have been like this all my life.”
Only in his later years did his collaborators compile, abridge, and submit his articles to journals for publication. After his death, us students gathered his articles that we’d read in class and published a series of books. One can accept such a person into American academic circles—everyone agrees that he is knowledgeable. Even if his works were very rarely seen in periodicals or even in the world’s finest journals, he still became a first-rate professor. This left a deep impression on me.
In talking about Linz’s great knowledge, I must also mention the book “Rethinking Military Politics” by Alfred Stepan, one of his collaborators. He went to Brazil to visit the head of the military government who was in the middle of democratizing Brazil. He asked why he was willing to delegate power. The military leader said it was because he’d read Juan Linz’s article, so he felt that there was no future for such a dictatorship in Brazil. Linz’s works could influence actual politics.
Do you find this strange? Today, it’s quite likely that Leung Chun-ying, and Carrie Lam do not read our articles [laughter], let alone Xi Jinping. However, once the Brazilian military government gained power and had a wealth of resources, it wanted to develop modern military equipment. But they found that they had to use computers to control the missiles. Since they did not understand how to do this, they hired a great many college students. This made the Brazilian army the highest-educated department across the Brazilian government, and attracted many intellectuals to join. Since intellectuals read papers like Linz’s, the military had the opportunity to come into contact with these ideas. Later on, people felt that as long as they served as a member of the military, they would be respected. Why do I need to be a part of the secret police to obtain power? This group of more open-minded military leaders ultimately delegated power. There was this backstory. You see, Juan Linz could actually influence politics.
As his students, we were especially thankful towards him, not only because of his bountiful knowledge, but also because he could influence real politics. He cherished each and every student, and deeply influenced us. As I just mentioned, he didn’t let us touch his books during class. He actually had a rather dull way of lecturing, and had a very heavy German accent. He often went overtime, and continued to talk for half an hour after class. Those who had to rush off to their next lecture complained that it was unfair that they couldn’t take part in the last 30 minutes. Americans often say: “This isn’t fair,” right? He said: “No problem, I will just start class half an hour earlier” [laughter]. Then he’d actually give a lecture half an hour earlier. When the bell signaled the end of class, he would still continue to talk for another half an hour [laughter]. Those students would ultimately still miss the last half hour of class.
After each lecture, there would always be a group of doctoral students waiting to discuss their dissertations with him over a meal. In his later years, he’d often come to Asia to attend conferences. At the time, I was writing my dissertation and at a very low point in my life. He made a special weeklong trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and I took him and his wife sightseeing. Every day, over breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner, we discussed my dissertation; other times, we went out to have fun. When I was at Yale, we would sit in his home and discuss our papers or how to design surveys. His wife would prepare breakfast, lunch, and refreshments for us. One day, I ate three meals at his home.
Juan Linz had no children—he viewed us as his own. He became my role model. To seriously engage in scholarship, and to care for one’s students is a greatly influential and meaningful thing. He shaped my lifelong aspirations.
I decided I wanted to become a scholar. I hoped to participate in and influence society.
Of course, there were also other teachers. Deborah Davis, a China expert who was my thesis supervisor, also was greatly influential to me, and gave me a lot of support. But as time is limited, I will not go further.
I returned from studying abroad in 1992, right at the peak of Hong Kong’s emigration tide. In 1992 and 1993, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers left, while I swam back against the current. There were fewer passengers flying into Hong Kong, and more departing.
I felt that my path was very clear and that I had important work to do. The first was on the China issue. I had read and learned a lot. With regard to the societal foundations needed for democracy, I needed to do something for China’s democratization. When considering Juan Linz’s five foundations for a democratic society, as a sociologist and considering my past work experience, I believed I was most qualified to address civil society.
So I made up my mind that while I was in China, I would spend 20 to 30 years and use all my strength to only discuss the words “civil society,” to help people understand what it really means. As a result, I spent 20 years in China, going from research to training NGOs, publishing works, setting up foundations, and allowing these foundations to allocate funds to NGOs. Finally, I felt that we needed a suitable policy environment, so I started to cooperate with the government.
The long-term goal was to democratize China. I don’t think that day will come soon. I am just laying down the foundation. What else can Hong Kong really do?
If we speak to the five societal conditions needed for democratization, Hong Kong is wholly and entirely equipped with the prerequisites. There hasn’t been a single country or region that has been like Hong Kong prior to democratization. We already have an active civil society, the rule of law, an opposition party, fairly effective and honest civil servants, and a market. We already meet many of these conditions. Be it 200, 300, or even 100 years ago, there wasn’t a single Western country that was like Hong Kong prior to democratizing. So for some people to say that Hong Kong doesn’t have enough conditions, or is not mature enough, nonsense, we need not pay attention to these rubbish-talkers. There has been no other society in history that has had such sufficient conditions prior to democratization.
So as for what we have to do, of course, I hope that Hong Kong can obtain universal suffrage. But most of the time I was in China. After work, I took the train to Shenzhen, and would board the fifth car, the dining car, of the Hexie [Harmony] high-speed train. No matter what kind of ticket I had, I’d order a cup of very expensive, very awful coffee—of course, there’d be seats available. Then I went to a university in Guangzhou to give a lecture, or go to an NGO meeting. But whenever there was any political reform in Hong Kong, I would come back to participate, and everyday I would write articles explaining why democracy is needed.
This is my life’s ambition: in China, to lay the foundation for a democratic society, and in Hong Kong, to fight for dual universal suffrage.
When thinking about the societal foundations for democracy, “Democracy in America” (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859) has had a big impact on me. This book talks about the U.S.’ first democratic movement. Why was it so successful? It wasn’t just limited to the electoral system. He said that it had its origins in “habits of the heart.” He was referring to popular customs: as people were heavily influenced by Puritan ways of thinking, they weren’t selfish, and valued the public interest. They lived simply, and took the middle path.
The book also mentioned that many people first participated in associations before participating in politics. So democracy had a profound influence on Americans who participated in civil society.
Another figure is Habermas. He talks about the “public sphere,” and pointed out that the tide of democratic thinking that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did not just focus on electoral politics. First, some space emerged for rational dialogue. Now what were these spaces? He was referring to England’s coffee shops, Paris’ salons, and Germany’s stammisch societies. He was also referring to newspapers at the time, which had mainly reported on economic affairs. However, these channels were slowly allowing the middle class—primarily merchants—to begin discussing politics. You levy taxes, but you don’t grant universal suffrage. Then why should I have to pay taxes? So they discussed this in the newspapers. There were also literary magazines that simultaneously discussed literature and provided social criticisms. Habermas believes that these spaces form the foundation of democracy. These spaces lend strength to fighting for democracy. This theory tells me that, when building societal foundations, the public sphere is very important to civil society.
The Inspiration for the Democracy Movement’s Strategy – Mandela’s Flexibility and Vision
With regards to the strategy of pursuing universal suffrage, Mandela has had a profound influence on me. I also believe he is an outstanding political figure that I greatly respect. Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” has accompanied me for a long time—I read it a bit in the evenings. I’m even reluctant to finish the book, since I’ve learned so much from him.
In his struggle for democracy, he has undergone many stages. He first practiced civil disobedience. Why was it that, in the same country, black people had to bring their passports to enter white areas? So I’ll burn my passport, so be it, I’m breaking the law, go ahead and arrest me! But they ultimately discovered that civil disobedience was not effective, that it was very “leftie” and useless. It was especially because of the massacre, where the slaughtered had been shot in the back, indicating that they were in the midst of fleeing, women and children alike. So talk of peaceful means ended, and a brave stand and willingness to fight was adopted.
Mandela learned guerilla warfare, built bombs, blew up government facilities, etc. He was arrested and imprisoned for more than 20 years while his comrades outside continued to fight. After Mandela had been behind bars for over 20 years, he realized that they couldn’t destroy the government, and the government couldn’t destroy them, either. The whole of society was filled with emptiness. Mandela thought perhaps they could try a third way: dialogue.
Mandela single-handedly wrote a letter to the government proposing dialogue. At that time, he was very careful, as his companions did not endorse this. So he took his time in solitary confinement as an opportunity to write the letter. His idea was: I have to see if this path can be walked. If it ultimately fails, my compatriots can blame me, and say that the length of my detention drove me crazy. He was taking his compatriots into consideration by thinking about a countermeasure that would bring the attacks upon himself, while paving the way for an alternate course of action.
Mandela said that indeed, as leaders, we must sometimes walk in front of the masses and confidently lead them in the right direction. He had given this serious thought, and finally successfully opened the door to dialogue and democratized South Africa by peaceful means. But if he had not had experience with civil disobedience, or with brave struggle and resistance, do you suppose he would have had moral power during those negotiations, and wouldn’t be doubted? If he had not spent time in prison, would he have moral power? Raphael Wong, you’ve been to prison the most. In the future, we’ll be relying on you [laughter].
Everything takes time. We cannot say that because Mandela succeeded in using dialogue, we can only use dialogue to solve problems. Sometimes we need to go through a process. It was especially because the white man’s regime was losing steam, and had spent a great deal on costs of governance, that it everyone had finally woke up and was willing to sit down.
If you ask me, I hoped the most viable path forward towards democratization would be dialogue between China and Hong Kong. I even walked into the Liaison Office because I felt that as long as there was opportunity for dialogue, I was willing to talk. It was not until 2012 that I felt that the road to dialogue had come to an end. I personally received many so-called “middlemen” from Beijing every month. Some friends who were present knew how I would meet them. The Liaison Office group would hold meetings with Beijing think tanks; I was the head of the group. My relationship with the Liaison Office was that intimate. I could walk into their midst. Think about that.
By the end of 2012, to my knowledge, I knew that the central government would not give us “true universal suffrage”; I felt that we must find a solution, but I couldn’t think of one. I also felt that if we didn’t do anything, the chance would drop to zero. There would only be a group of angry youth having a massive confrontation with the government. It would only be that the Fishball Revolution would happen earlier. There would be mass bloodshed, and no real democratization.
Was it possible to take a final stand? But I didn’t think, and who would’ve imagined, that this silly man Benny Tai would publish an article promoting the idea of “Occupy Central.” I thought it only had a five percent chance for success and a 95 percent chance of failure. He also remembers that I said this sentence: Even if it’s only between 0 and 5 percent, even if it’s only 5%, I will give it my all. But I still thought the chance of failure was very high, mainly because the problem lay in China’s overall situation—this was the issue of Xi Jinping. Although there was only a 5% chance, if it’s the right thing to do, why not go all out? So I had to put it into action. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to have dialogue. We’d already reached the end of the rope on that one, and so we had to try other methods. Wanting to try this method didn’t necessarily mean this was our only method. I believe the most important thing is to use methods appropriate to the current situation in order to reach the other shore.
The Primer for the Democracy Movement’s Strategy – Civil Disobedience
After the Umbrella Movement, many people asked if we could carry on with civil disobedience. Was it actually feasible in Hong Kong? Why did citizens want to practice civil disobedience? Why was it that when Benny Tai proposed Occupy Central, I so quickly agreed to work with him?
Because I had long been reading works in this field in order to understand how different people across history had practiced civil disobedience. Of course, the earliest of them was Henry David Thoreau. Back then, he’d been opposed to the unjust Mexican-American War, which sought to expand slavery. He thought this was wrong, but how could an individual stand up against the government? He ultimately took the simple action—he violated a law unrelated to war. He did not pay the voting tax, and was arrested willingly. Although it was only for a day or two, it stirred societal controversy and triggered debate. It led everyone to discuss: Why did an intellectual, a gentleman, go to jail? Why he did do it in this way? Why was the slavery system unjust? Why should we not start a war?
From this instance of civil disobedience, one could see that: first, he violated the law, but the purpose was to fight for justice, not personal benefit, so this was different from an ordinary crime. Second, he was not violent. Third, he had to undergo punishment and jail time. Fourth, his purpose in violating the law in this manner was to not undermine the rule of law, he was taking a proportional approach. One cannot go occupy Central because a canal ruptured near your home. Even if this was in the public interest, it wouldn’t be an appropriately proportional action to take. Therefore, in undertaking civil disobedience, one must consider many different conditions.
Of course, Gandhi has also influenced me deeply. One of Gandhi’s important acts of civil disobedience was the Salt March. At first, no one really paid him heed, as there were only a few people involved. Salt at that time was wholly government-controlled, from collection to treatment to sale. People thought that the salt was too expensive. Since we can collect salt from the sea, why do we have to pay taxes and buy expensive salt? So Gandhi thought, if a person learns to fight for his rights even for the smallest of things, only then would he know how to think about greater rights such as democracy and independence. So he began to lead people to the sea to collect salt.
At first, the colonial government brushed this off, as there were only a few people. But more and more people joined until they numbered in the thousands. The government grew nervous and arrested Gandhi. Then the female poet Naidu brought 2,500 people to the beach to continue harvesting salt. The police had long been lying in wait, each policeman with a metal-tipped baton in hand. The protesters walked past them very quietly and slowly. The police brandished their batons and began raining down blows. Those in the back heard the sounds of ribs cracking—ka, ka. There was a lot of bloodshed. After the protesters fell, volunteers moved the injured to the side, while another group helped bandage their wounds. Another row of helmetless protesters immediately forged ahead. It was through this process of being beaten that they could demonstrate the power of nonviolence. They really weren’t trying to cause conflict. Instead, they sought for society to understand the reasons behind their actions, and to highlight the violence employed by the regime. So they would rather be defenseless, and be beaten as they passed through.
Gandhi’s “nonviolence” made him different from Mandela. Because of his religious beliefs, his principles called for nonviolence. He believed that no one in this world could possess absolute truth. Those who believe they have absolute truth will use violence. This is the case with religion—they pursue Holy Wars, regardless of if they’re Christian, Catholic, or Islamic. They all believe their god is the true God, so you can kill those who are infidels. We humans cannot master the absolute truth. Read Unamuno. We know very little. Since we don’t know the absolute truth, we should not use violence to impose our beliefs on others. Therefore, Gandhi was a nonviolent person who was determined to proceed from his principles.
The third, of course, is Martin Luther King. After he finished his postdoc, he could have worked in a middle-class church in the Northeast, but he preferred to return to the South to be a pastor. He felt a very important calling there, a calling telling him he must return.
His first action was to confront racism with the “bus boycotts” protest. At the time, a black female passenger, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat on a full bus to a white man. The law at the time prioritized whites. She refused to give up her spot and was arrested. Then Martin Luther King led a bus boycott movement in which they would rather walk than take a bus until the discriminatory laws were changed.
It wasn’t easy in the slightest for them to insist on walking. Some people had to walk more than ten or 20 kilometers to get to work. This was not just for one day, it was for more than 370 days. Those who had cars would carpool to work together. The police zeroed in those cars and issued tickets for speeding, or overly crowded vehicles.
In these several hundred days of struggle, Martin Luther King was certainly criticized. Who was affected by this? All of them were black people, poor people. They were the bus drivers. “Blocking people from earning their living is like killing one’s parents!” We should all be very familiar with the term “blocking people from earning their living.” You’re blocking people from earning their living! You are hurting the poorest of the poor! Even black people lambasted him.
I most clearly remember Martin Luther King saying that he received a letter or a postcard from a church member. He said: “Pastor, Pastor, Pastor Martin Luther King, it’s soon Christmas, let’s not make a stir. Why can’t we harmoniously spend our Christmas? What problems do we really have right now? We used to be slaves, and now we have personal safety and freedom. We just can’t vote, that’s all.”
At the time, whenever blacks wished to register to vote, they were always asked a slew of questions. If they didn’t answer correctly, they would be “DQ” (disqualified) and they could not become voters. What kinds of questions were there? What are the names of the five justices of the Supreme Court? If you couldn’t say them, you would be “DQ.”
So the church member said: “Forget it, we just don’t have this part. Otherwise, we live quite well. Why do you want to divide society so that everything is the whites’ fault? This is only going to divide us.” He also said: “If God really wanted blacks and whites to be equal, then God would make everyone white, or everyone black. God made black people and white people so that we would be different, to make them unequal.”
In the 1950s, they felt that life was quite good. Why did King want to create chaos? When we look back sixty years later, they were only fighting for some very basic rights, but they could still be misunderstood by the times. Martin Luther King also said that the most talented pastors all opposed him; only some younger pastors supported him. Martin Luther King asked: What is true harmony? Only a just system can guarantee long-term harmony. If there is no righteous system in place, that harmony is fake.
Before we were in possession, Martin Luther King’s words made me realize early on that the emergence of [conservative Hong Kong journalist] Robert Chow was no accident [laughter]. I had been mentally prepared for him to say something.
Today, many people think that these “leftie” things have already been tried and don’t work. It was because Martin Luther King’s struggle for civil disobedience was under the American democratic regime that it could be successful. India was a British colony at the time, and the United Kingdom was a democratic country, so civil disobedience under Gandhi could also succeed. How could other places succeed?
Many scholars have studied the democratization processes of governments across the world over the last 40-plus years. Nearly 70 percent of the regimes democratized through peaceful means, including by revolution. We consider revolutions to be like the French Revolution, where they fought against the government, but many revolutions are not like this. If we don’t have force, or guns, or tanks, how can we revolt? A lot of the time, it’s because the people are very peaceful that upon the moment of pulling the trigger, the army and the police soften and split apart. Under such circumstances, the government must fall.
So no matter which path we take to democratize, even if by revolution, the fact is that over the past 40 years, there has been very little violent revolution. Especially in the case of Hong Kong, even if you launched a revolution, the People’s Liberation Army will simply assume control. Right now the PLA already seems to be using our land. They’re on the border, and passing through West Kowloon. I feel that in order to do this in a sustainable way, we can only resist peacefully.
How can China achieve democracy? I really do not know. I was just telling a friend yesterday that in the late Qing Dynasty, all the moderate reformists did not meet a good end, and converted into revolutionaries. In what direction will China ultimately go? Of course, from my heart, I don’t want to see a revolution occur. Who wants to see bloodshed? Reverend Chu Yiu-ming often used to tell me that he really wanted a revolution, but when the Umbrella Movement came, he held back tears every day, fearing that a student would be injured or killed. We all have this heart, we don’t want to see this come to pass. So in order to employ peaceful methods, we will hold fast to the very end.
Waiting for Enlightenment: The Societal Foundation for Chinese Autocracy
I am about to depart from the CUHK campus, and must say goodbye to a 20-plus year teaching career. And because I am leaving, I have to pack up all of my books. The process of packing up my books was quite special. It was a process of “breaking away.” I suddenly asked myself, in the future, what problems will I still dedicate myself to? Are there any issues I will no longer research? This was a very good process—it urged me to rank my values. I realized there were very few books left. They are all books that are waiting to enlighten.
The problems that I will continue to ponder are all China’s. Because Hong Kong’s future is inextricable from China’s, China’s future will affect us.
The question I want to think about is: why has China been an authoritarian society for thousands of years? Why is it still persisting? Why is it sliding backwards after the period of reform and opening? What is its societal foundation? Do we have a way of breaking this vicious cycle?
The questions to ponder also include why, over all these years, we still haven’t been able to bring about civil society? In our public sphere, we can let citizens freely connect and even take action to resist. I can’t really talk about this in great detail. I can only say that when we were in the late Qing Dynasty, in some aspects we were very close to how the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe were. At that time, there were already some newspapers, such as the “72 line business newspaper.”
I specially took a Masters student to Sun Yat-sen University to look for newspapers in a very humid room. I wanted to take a look at the business newspapers of the late Qing Dynasty. Did they discuss politics? Finally, I really found a newspaper from the late Qing Dynasty. It was very damp and quite moist. I think I did something very important—I immediately paid a small sum of money to protect those papers by turning them into photographic film. Amongst the merchant circles back then, there were actually a lot of articles discussing democracy, and even independence.
At that time, many teahouses and restaurants in China posted “no political affairs” signs. This meant that there were many people who were arguing about politics, similar to a “public sphere”. I once heard a scholar say that in fact, Chinese brothels were also part of the public sphere. Within the literary brothels, there were many literati who discussed politics. I was looking forward to him publishing, so it could tell me whether China’s literary brothels were part of the public sphere. Unfortunately, this article has never been published [laughter]. Maybe the literati were fooling themselves [laughter] and just finding excuses to drink.
I will apologize now to all students: I will be throwing a lot of books out at the entrance to my office. But it won’t include these topics, because I still have to read them.
The second question is: Can China produce an independent group of intellectuals? What face will our intellectuals present? In this day and age, I have met so many scholars in China, and even some in Hong Kong, and they are all like this: our whole system is predicated on [the principle that] “a good scholar can become an official.” Scholars feel that their highest aspiration is to be an advisor to the emperor, to teach the emperor to read at the Hanlin Academy. They want to be teachers of the state. We have too many of these kinds of scholars.
Why can’t we create an independent intellectual group to become society’s conscience, use our knowledge to criticize our societal ills, and even criticize power? These are all questions I want to think about.
The third question I want to ponder is the issue of authoritarian personality. Is it actually the case that “every nation gets the government it deserves”? During World War II, a group of German scholars were forced into exile, and established the Frankfurt School. The problem they had in common was: such a rational society–this is Germany, we produced Kant, our music is so serious–how could we produce someone like Hitler, and how could there be such a large number of people who madly follow him? We have to think about this issue.
Why did the tragedy occur? It was not only because of the few leaders, but the quality of everyone across society. Some fundamental problems appeared. Everyone may have read about the sin of mediocrity in Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil.” This book was written after a post-World War II trial. The accused was a Nazi high official who slaughtered many Jews. Everyone was craning their necks to see who this devil was, only to see an inarticulate and shy technocrat. After some back and forth, he said everything he did was legal, he was just following his superior’s orders.
Now in China, they are building this “rule by law,” and often remind us that Hong Kong is “using law to rule Hong Kong.” But when they refer to this so-called “law,” what kind of law is this? Is it the “rule of law”? The law doesn’t just let the government control society. If we’re to talk about the rule of law, it must be that the people can perform checks and balances on the government through the law. Only this type of balance can be the rule of law. Otherwise, it is only rule by law. Whether in China or Hong Kong, it is clear that we are now moving towards rule by law.
Then many Hongkongers said that this has nothing to do with me, I obey the law. So I “DQ” them. They said that this is not my business or my decision—I’ll let others decide. With such a massive tragedy in Germany, many people used the same excuse and shirked conscientious choices.
Erich Fromm wrote “Escape From Freedom.” I told students that if you want me to introduce ten books, this book has to make the list. The question he wanted to ask is the question I just posed. Why did the Germans fall like this? The most basic reason was that people lost their sense of security. When some people lose their sense of security, they will not even pursue freedom. They would rather follow a very great person, without thinking, but still following.
Erich Fromm traced why German people lost their sense of security. He said that there were two forces. One was the rise of capitalism. As society transitioned from agricultural to industrial, people were becoming more and more atomized. There was no more group; they felt more and more helpless. The second was the rise of Protestantism. When going from Catholicism to Protestantism, everyone had to face God alone. This had to be justified by faith and be accountable to God. Many people began to feel nervous and very insecure. [Fromm] said these two major factors, political economy and religious factors, created situations of helplessness and loneliness. There was no sense of security. If people do not feel safe, they will give up their freedom. Today, you see that in the entire Western world, because of the problem of terrorism, there is no sense of security. They set up many laws to control freedoms. They even have laws against cults. It used to be difficult to imagine this happening in the West. When people lose their sense of security, this will happen.
I often think: why do these ambitious and ruthless figures emerge during troubled times? Whether it is in the government or amongst the masses, it is because people lose their sense of security. We have to think about how to deal with this security issue. You might ask, if I am to think about China’s issues—to be honest, how long will it be before we see the emergence of democracy in China? I really don’t know.
On this long and distant road, sometimes I really 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.
To CUHK students: I give you a dialogue between Van Gogh and his teacher
When I was in my second year of college, I read the “Biography of Vincent Van Gogh.” It had a profound impact on me. Everyone knows that I like painting. Van Gogh and the group of Impressionists at the time were doing something very revolutionary.
When painting a portrait during the Middle Ages, it couldn’t resemble the true individual, as the Bible said that idols cannot be made. So, the painter did not dare to paint the true image. He instead painted the Virgin Mary and Jesus in dark colors, and didn’t dare to paint flesh and blood. After the Renaissance, everyone extolled the human body and said [in English] Humanity. So we saw a lot of realistic paintings emerge, but these realistic paintings had become mainstream for a long time, and so they came to an end.
In the era of Van Gogh, they tried a new beginning. They didn’t just portray the exact form, but also the feeling. They discussed light, shadow, projection of inner feelings. If you were not happy, the trees would sway. When you were depressed, the sky would be purple; when you felt passionate, the grass could be orange. They were very era-defining, but they were completely misunderstood by the times. People thought they weren’t yet done with their sketches—what are you doing?
The painter Cézanne’s apple painting—everyone knows it is very valuable, with an auction price in the billions. When Van Gogh sold paintings, he said to the art merchants, I don’t want four apples, I want three, so he would just take his knife and cut one out. He wanted to disgrace his Van Gogh painting. He only sold one in his life. It should be the painting of the vineyard. All his paintings were actually quietly bought by his younger brother, who told him people were buying his paintings in order to support and encourage him. For a whole lifetime, they walked alone on a path that later generations have come to appreciate.
Van Gogh was not a painter at first. He first sold paintings in the gallery and found that the work was very painstaking. Why? He found that the most beautiful paintings are usually not bought. The ugliest, most tacky ones were the first to be bought, so he decided he did not want to continue in this line of work. I quote:
“To effortlessly lose face, one’s mind must first die. Life is not limited to seeking pleasure, or limited to behaving with integrity. One should ponder the greater significance of mankind, strive for his own dignity, and surpass those with that set of vulgar habits of wanting to idle and do things half-heartedly.”
He didn’t want to continue living such an idle life, so what would he do next? He succeeded his father, learned theology, and became a priest. After he finished studying, he went to Belgium to be a clergyman. Van Gogh walked into the mineshafts, into the poorest places, to preach the gospel. After he went home every day, he noticed his clothes were almost gone, because when he saw such poor people, he said that if I really believe in Jesus, how can I witness such suffering and still dress so beautifully? Every time he saw the poor in the street, he would take off his clothes and give them away. Those “filthy and squalid” people would never go to church. He went into the mines to preside over the worship. But the Church said that you can’t do this, you’re destroying our etiquette. So they condemned him, and refused to recognize his holy communion as conforming to the church norms.
He was very disappointed in the entire Church, and wrote a very pained entry:
“So he suddenly discovered something he had understood for a long time. All these short and long discussions of God were all childish escapes from reality. They were all frightened and lonely mortals. They whispered lies in the cold, dark, and eternal night. God did not exist. What did exist was just chaos. It was misery, pain, cruelty, hardship, and blind and endless chaos.”
Even as a priest, Van Gogh could fall to such a low point. What did he do next? He devoted his whole life to painting. He was influenced by schools of painting, the first being Japan’s ukiyo-e painting. The color of ukiyo-e painting left a deep impression on him. The other is the so-called Barbizon School. Their material was very devout—they extolled laborers, the earth, and praised the creation of God. Therefore, Van Gogh’s paintings were another redemptive process. Was there a God or not? He seemed to be very disappointed, but he found God again in his paintings.
Van Gogh said that for him, the blank canvas was like a meaningless life laughing at him. You can see that his paintings are very thick, as if he were attacking the canvas. Because he thought that the white canvas was an empty life, he had to fill it to the brim. He said that he wanted to show the rhythm of nature, but actually this was portraying God. He finally redeemed himself through painting.
When he was young, he had a conversation that I want to present to every college student in the room. When he was young and studied theology, he was once very tired. He and his teacher walked on the outskirts of the neighborhood. This conversation took place before a grave—Rembrandt’s grave. If you go to the Netherlands, go see his painting “Night Watch.” Today, everyone thinks that Rembrandt’s paintings are famous, but what about back then?
This dialogue is for all the students here.
Teacher: This person died a poor and humiliating death.
Van Gogh: But when he died, he wasn’t laden with grief.
Teacher: True, he had sufficiently expressed himself, and he also knew the true value of his work. Actually, at the time, only one person knew it.
Van Gogh: Is that to say that if he himself understood the value, that that could bring satisfaction? Or did he get it wrong?
Teacher: What others think doesn’t matter at all. Rembrandt had to keep painting. It doesn’t matter if he painted well or not. Only art could make him a complete person. He already attained what he knew was his life’s goal. He did not live in vain.
Van Gogh: But teacher, how can a youth know if he has made the right choice?
Teacher: Nothing can always be fully grasped. As long as you have courage and strength, it is enough to do what you think is right. Maybe the result will be wrong, but you have at least finally done it. We must follow the highest orders given by our rational selves. As for its ultimate value, only God can judge. Everyone has a complete sense of self, with their own set of characteristics. If you can follow your nature, then whatever you do, the result will always be perfect.
These are the last words that I present to you students. I hope that you can follow your hearts to create truth, goodness, and beauty in this world. I hope you do not live your lives in vain.
Thank you all.
[Entire hall gives standing ovation] [Chinese text]
Translation by Lisbeth, Josh Rudolph, and Anne Henochowicz
*Editor’s note, January 28, 2019: Due to an editorial error, the Chinese phrase 民主回歸 was translated as “return to democracy” in several instances. For accuracy, that phrase has been changed to “democratic reunification.” Several Cantonese names have also been corrected, having originally been rendered in as Mandarin pinyin.