Translation: Chan Kin-man’s Farewell Lecture

Translation: Chan Kin-man’s Farewell Lecture

On November 14, 2018, social scientist, professor, and co-founder of Hong Kong’s 79-day Occupy movement Chan Kin-man delivered a farewell speech to a packed hall at the Chinese University of Hong Kong–his alma mater and longtime employer–days before he would begin facing trial for his role in the 2014 civil disobedience campaign. Chan indicated that he had resigned from his university position in order to “travel light” into the trial and not create “confusion” for his students, colleagues and family. Chan and eight other Occupy players, co-founders, and organizers faced trial between November 19 and December 14. Chan, along with Occupy co-founders Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming—the “Three Sons of Occupy”—all pleaded not guilty to the three joint charges they faced: conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting others to incite others to cause public nuisance. A verdict for the “Occupy Nine” is expected in early April.

In this lengthy pre-trial and farewell speech, Chan expressed that he was well-prepared to spend time in jail, and that he expected he and his colleagues would emerge from any time served stronger than before. He also took the opportunity to pay homage to the events, books, intellectuals, and activists who prepared him for his life as a social scientist and political activist, including German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Incident, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and others. He also spoke about his religious journey, concluding that, “I am a person who has faith but has no religion.” CDT has translated the 16,000 word speech in full, and has excerpted and posted highlights below. The original Chinese version is available here:

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]

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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?

[…] 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.

[…] 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.  […]

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.  

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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.

[…] 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. [Full text in English; Full text in Chinese]

Translation by Lisbeth, Josh Rudolph, and Anne Henochowicz.


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