Kin-man Chan received his PhD from Yale University and is currently Associate Professor of Sociology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is a former director of the Universities Service Centre for China Studies and founder of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at the same university. He serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Civil Society (US), China Non-Profit Review (Beijing) and Third Sector Review (Taiwan). He is the co-author of Stories and Theories of Democracy (with Choy Chi Keung), Contentious Views: Nine Debates that Changed Hong Kong (with Ng Shu Yui), One Country Two Systems (with Tsui Sing Yan), Trade Association and Social Capital (with Qiu Haixiong) and author of Towards Civil Society and Civil Society Perspective: Towards Good Governance. Professor Chan is very active in the democracy movement in Hong Kong and was one of the major organisers of the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Q: I often ask the people I interview for my study if they themselves believe we are in a transition. What do you think? If you believe we are, how do you define it?
Economically, Hong Kong went through a major transition in the 1980s. Many factories in Hong Kong moved to China and we were the first to invest in the opening Chinese economy. This meant that Hong Kong needed to move its economy away from manufacturing towards a services economy. Today, 95% to 97% of our economy is service-based. Many of these services are still linked to manufacturing in China, though less today to do with ownership and running of factories and more to do with procurement and trading of goods.
Politically, Hong Kong started its pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s, because we could see on the horizon the British handing over of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and knew this could be a potential issue for our liberties. I was part of that initial movement. However, at that time, it wasn’t possible to create a mass opposition movement because most of Hong Kong’s population was made up of Chinese people who left the Mainland in 1949. That generation – my parents’ generation – believed Hong Kong was a temporary home for them and that they would return to their home towns in China some day. They never had a strong commitment or attachment to Hong Kong.
The second generation, the baby boomers, my generation, we already felt as Hong Kongers. We saw the city as our home and that is why we asked for more reform, including the political reform of the 1980s. However, a lot of people in that generation felt they had another option to protect their freedom and basic rights: immigration. For that reason, we were unable to gather a mass democratic movement at that time.
Today, the current young generation are already 3rd or even 4th generation Hong Kongers and are attached to this place. Furthermore, it is no longer as easy to immigrate and find jobs abroad. The West is slowly reducing immigration and there is globally more competition. So, that generation feels in a way stuck here. Along with a deep value change, this enabled to finally create a mass pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong.
The value change I speak of is to do with education. In the past few years, because of the transition to the services economy I mentioned, the education system changed as well. In an industrial era, education was focused on discipline, concentration, doing well on exams. These are the virtues of an industrial society but today, we encourage critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, team work, verbal presentation skills, etc.
We changed the curriculum really. One of the most important changes in the last few years, was creating a new subject: Liberal Studies. It integrates several other subjects such as History, Geography, Psychology, China Study, etc. and it really opened students’ eyes to social and political issues.
The third reason that we were able to create a mass movement, was to do with a 2003 decision by the Hong Kong Government to protect National Securities, it was proposed under the name of Article 23 of the Basic Law. People demonstrated in the streets against the Government having so much power, especially in regards to our Freedom of Speech. After that, people realised that existing freedoms and rights could be taken away. People took democracy more seriously.
In the last 10 years, that is the real transition I have witnessed.
Q: To focus on the most recent and grandest of these democratic mobilisations, the Umbrella Movement in 2014. As one of its instigators, do you consider it a success?
In terms of institutional change, no. We did not get democracy, we didn’t change the system at all. But it enlightened a whole generation of young people.
The statistics show very clearly that though the community was split concerning the movement, 60 to 70% of young people supported it and only 7% opposed it, the rest being neutral. Among Hong Kong’s society at large, only 30% supported it and roughly the same proportion opposed it.
It really triggered a new political process for Youth. More than that, it changed the organisational base of democratic movements. After the Umbrella Movement, student organisations started having a lot of infighting. Many thought these groups were too conservative and too influenced by older generations, people like myself. They wanted a more radical approach and so wanted to change the long-existing democratic organisations.
Since the end of the demonstrations, 18 professional groups have been created to fight for democracy. These groups are made up of doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT workers in their 30s. They constitute the future elite and pillar of society. In the past, people in those professions were very conservative. Now, these people are creating group after group to fight for democracy and social justice.
So though the movement was not successful in what it set out to do, in terms of organisation space, it has expanded the base of militancy especially among young people.
Q: During the same period, Taiwan lived through its own pro-democratic movement, the Sunflower Movement. Arguably that movement was more successful in its fight. What differences do you see which could explain this?
The first difference is that the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan was opposing the Kuomintang (KMT) which is already a democratic party in a democratic regime whereas here in Hong Kong, we fought against Beijing, a communist regime. The nature of the opponent was different.
Secondly, at that time, there existed a split within the KMT, within the ruling party’s elite. Ma Ying-jeou, the President at the time, was in disagreement with the President of the Congress, Wang Jin-pyng. The party wanted to do away with Wang. Wang took this opportunity to side with the students to strengthen his political position at that moment and didn’t stop the students who stormed the Congress. This type of political opportunity is very important in the success of movements.
In Hong Kong, I believe the student leaders missed a similar chance when they negotiated with the Government at the end of the demonstrations. Carrie Lam, who oversaw the negotiations was more open-minded and more liberal than Cy Leung, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, and wanted a softer solution to resolving the conflict. I don’t think the students were wise enough at the time to make good use of such a split in Government. Again, Taiwan having been a democracy for longer, opposition movements are more experienced at taking advantage of such political opportunities.
Q: You already explained some reasons for the split in political opinion between the middle-aged population in Hong Kong and its youth. However, as you explained the Baby Boomers are now at a point in their lives where it is unlikely they will leave if the political climate changes in Hong Kong. What explains the passivity within that generation?
The first generation of Hong Kongers, the Baby Boomers’ parents, fled to Hong Kong to avoid political turmoil in China. They raised their children with the idea that it is better to avoid politics. Middle-aged people in Hong Kong do not hate democracy, they do not want to rock the boat. They believe Hong Kong is good enough compared to the rest of China. It is a safe haven, why draw attention to ourselves by rocking the boat?
This is the background. As I mentioned, they are also less educated. Another important point is that the information gateways they use are mainly TV – Hong Kong really only has one television channel which is very pro-China – and also free newspapers distributed in the MTR which are also very pro-Beijing.
Young Hong Kongers are more educated and depend on the internet for their information. That makes an important difference.
Q: Since the end of the Umbrella Movement, it seems that pro-democracy youth movements are radicalising in their strategies. Do you agree with this observation and do you believe that is a good thing?
After witnessing 1,2M people involved in civil disobedience without any tangible results during the Umbrella Movement, some young people have decided that pro-democracy movements had reached the limits of peaceful protesting and needed to switch for more militant tactics. Earlier this year as a result, we saw riots in Kowloon - which we refer to as the Fishball revolution – it was really violent.
Not only has there been changes in tactics but also in terms of objectives. There is the feeling that under the One Country, Two Systems rule, there will be no possibility for democracy, so some young people in the pro-democracy movement have decided to fight for Hong Kong’s independence from China. They believe that without sovereignty there is no possibility for democracy.
All this is part of a set of trends that we predicted before the Umbrella Movement, when we saw that it would fail. Hong Kong is facing a “political cliff” and will see three trends:
- Localism: a fight for Hong Kong independence
- Militancy: more militant confrontation
- Cynicism: particularly among young middle class people, seeing that there is nothing they can do to change the system, they will retreat. They might even emigrate to other countries.
We are already seeing the first two trends happening. I am waiting for the third trend to happen. If next year, Cy Leung is re-elected then we will see cynicism start I think.
At the moment, there is a lot of infighting within the democratisation movement. Not only did the young generation denounce the old democratic movement as weak and not having made any progress in the last 30 years - which I would argue isn’t true – even within the youth there is lots of fighting.
One group pushing for independence is attacking other pro social movements. Why? Because to have independence they believe you first need to build a nation, even if it is at first a stateless nation. They feel we need to create a strong Hong Kong culture and wait for a political opportunity to institutionalize a new State. To define this culture, they need to find an enemy and of course they have started demonizing Mainland China and blaming Chinese immigrants. They attack tourist and blame mainland students. Each year 30-40’000 Chinese immigrate to Hong Kong and they see them as the reason for not having democracy, they see them as a burden on welfare, etc. The social movement in Hong Kong has traditionally been fighting for the underprivileged who are mainly Chinese immigrants. For this reason, this first group has been attacking social activists in recent months. This is just one example of infighting.
I believe this is a transitional period. People like me need to step aside and let these Localists try to change things. I can’t see any way for Hong Kong to get independence but we need a period of struggle and chaos, so that both the Government and Localists exhaust themselves. Hopefully, afterwards we will be able to sit down and negotiate again.
To draw this conclusion, I look at what is happening in China. It is a larger picture we need to take into account. Xi Jinping is still consolidating his power using dictatorial means. He is trying to crack down on corruption using a very top down approach. I can appreciate the goal but not the means. I believe he will fail. I also don’t think he will give Hong Kong democracy before he succeeds on this issue. So, in the next 5 years – the end of his term – I do not see any opportunities for democracy in Hong Kong to happen. This in turn, will strengthen the resolve of the young in Hong Kong to fight for sovereignty, which China will never grant because sovereignty is even more important than democracy.
It is a deadlock which heralds a time of much conflict. The only way out that I can see is if Xi Jinping appoints someone more skilful to ease the conflict a bit. If he hand-picks Cy Leung again to be the Chief Executives, I think there will be much conflict including riots.
I want China to learn from Taiwan. I want Xi Jinping to learn from Chiang Ching-kuo. I don’t believe the top down approach will succeed in fighting institutional corruption. To do so, I believe China needs to liberalise slightly so that civil society and the media can help the government and monitor these political classes. By liberalising slightly China, this then opens up a possibility for Hong Kong to continue its constitutional reform with democracy being an end goal, like special economic zones tried market economy at first for China.
Unfortunately, I can’t see this trend for political liberalism in China or popular demand for it, even among the Chinese elite. China is still copying places like Singapore; good governance without democracy. For popular support of the Party, China relies on its governmental efficiency and not a political mandate. This is a tradition that dates back all the way to Confucianism. The government should work for the people but does not get its legitimacy by the people.
Q: Maybe a European perspective, but some people argue that the Chinese or in general East Asian group mindset is not conducive to Democracy? What is your opinion?
Luckily South Korea and Taiwan - strong Confucianism cultures - disprove that assertion.
The main narrative is that China - such a big and diverse country - needs a strong authoritarian power to stay whole. Chinese exceptionalism if you will. But China is still not very educated compared to Taiwan and South Korea. Both these countries only got democracy towards the end of their industrial process. China is still far from that point.
I don’t subscribe to cultural determinism. You can also pick arguments that support democracy, like what I was saying about accountability. In Chinese culture, the Emperor gets his power from Heaven but Heaven is too abstract, so one needs the eyes and the ears of the people to monitor the Emperor.
One day, when we have democracy, we can pick such a passage of Confucianism to explain that the seed of democracy was there all along.
Q: So how confident are you in the democratization movements in Hong Kong and China?
I am not so sure any more. Looking at the rise of populism in the West – Brexit, Trumpism – I’m a little bit worried and see that there can be another period of narcissism. There could be the emergence of another Hitler.
Here, pro-democracy movements thought history was on our side. Now people are demoralised and confused by what is happening in the West. This is also strengthened by several examples of superficial democracies, like Russia.
In the next 5 or 10 years, China will know a change. If China can keep 5% growth, they will get to the point of Taiwan 30 years ago, and then maybe they will go the same way and start liberalising politics. However, I am not that optimistic, especially in the short run.
Q: What is your perspective on current western Isolationism?
I get the feeling that people in the West feel very insecure. A lot of people in the Middle-class lost jobs to globalization and so now, are more afraid of immigration and are getting more protective.
It happens in Hong Kong as well. People in Hong Kong feel threaten from Chinese immigration. There are only 7M people in Hong Kong but the city receives 15M visitor from China each year. People have become more protective as well.
Q: It is ironic that isolationism here in Hong Kong is a pro-democracy movement whereas things seem to be going the other way in the West.
It is pro-democracy but at the same time, there is a strong sense of parochialism. People do not want to understand China, they find the West is too complicated as well, so people become very inward-looking.
It is dangerous because Hong Kong is dependent on trade. Historically with the world, more and more in recent years with China and I am not sure what will happen if we cut ties with China.
We need a more proactive approach towards China. In the past 20 years, I spent most of my time in China. I helped create a lot of civil society in China, I helped train NGOs… I believe Hong Kong paved a very important road in terms of economic development for China but now it needs to pave a political road as well. Hong Kong needs to see itself as an example to influence the Mainland. However, I feel the younger generation is increasingly inward-looking and don’t appreciate this idea. They lack confidence in our ability to influence such a large, powerful and boastful superpower.
We were an influence in our economic model, but we also influenced China in terms of culture (movies, music, etc.). Why can’t the same happen with our social sector which is a very good example of good governance but is different to the centralized top down government model of China?
The problem today is this lack of confidence. My own experience shows me that it is possible to influence China but few people invest their time trying to do so. This is maybe because I am part of the 2nd generation of Hong Kongers and I still have a certain commitment to China, which the young don’t feel.
Q: As a specialist on Democracy, what is your opinion on Direct Democracy? Liquid Democracy? Sortition?
In 2013, when Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai and I started the Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) movement, even though we were fighting for a representative democracy, we all believed that democracy is more than just elections. For that reason, in the first stage, we organised a series of deliberation days, so that people could get together and discuss democracy and the proposal that we would put to Beijing. After that initial 9-month period, we organised a people’s referendum (in Hong Kong there are no official referendums). We wanted a mandate from the people to negotiate with Beijing. This in part is Direct Democracy and also Representative Democracy.
However, we are wary of the risk of populism using Direct Democracy. Usually for a referendum, one needs to simplify the matter and that can lead to populism. So before any kind of direct democracy, we need to go through a very careful deliberation.
Benny Tai and I both subscribe to Deliberative Democracy. It is important, to build both a culture and the necessary procedures for deliberate democracy. For example, in the first phase I mentioned anybody who raised their hand could make a speech and expose their ideas. Then, we broke people up in randomly assigned groups to discuss facilitated by professional moderators. These procedures were put in place to guarantee that the debate not be monopolized by any one side or party.
Fishkin is our current day reference and we are philosophically influenced by Habermas. Sincere and rational dialogue is very important. Look at what happened for Brexit where studies show that only 30% of people claimed to understand beforehand they were voting on.
I feel quite sad now because people don’t seem to want to talk to one another. As I have explained, activists in Hong Kong feel that the time to talk has passed and now is the time to act, to show your power, to pressure Beijing.
Even if you manage to overthrow the Hong Kong Government, what will happen? You will invite the People’s Liberation Army. This is what happened in 1956 in Budapest and in Prague in 1968. I hope we learn from Poland’s Solidarnorsc which was a self-limiting movement. Even with millions of members, they refused the temptation to violently overthrown the communist party. However, to have such patience, one needs hope and today, we have lots of rage but where is the hope?
 The proposal reads as follows: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”
 Hong Kong’s metro system.
 For more information see New Trends of Political Participation in Hong Kong