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Interview: ‘Grassroots Participation in Democracy is Crucial,’ Says Veteran Hong Kong Activist

On April 24, 2019, a court in Hong Kong handed down jail terms to four pro-democracy activists accused of “inciting” the 2014 Occupy Central movement, after finding them guilty of public order charges. Movement co-founders Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man were both sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment by the West Kowloon District Court for “conspiracy to cause a public nuisance,” while fellow movement leader Chu Yiu-ming, 75, and Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan were given suspended prison terms owing to poor health. The charges were based on comments made to the media, and on a 2013 press conference given by Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai and Chu Yiu-ming calling on people to occupy the Central business district in a peaceful civil disobedience campaign for fully democratic elections. Chan Kin-man, 61, who was released after serving his full sentenced in March, spoke to RFA’s Cantonese Service this week about his time in jail and his hopes for Hong Kong:

I was at peace with myself, because I knew exactly what I was doing, and I didn’t have too many worries. But there were two nights when I couldn’t sleep.

I was very happy because I could still participate in the outside world. There were only five people in the prison, or about 10 percent of the population, who actually voted.

It gave me time to read. It’s important, when you’re reading, to get three meals a day, morning, noon and night. The government thinks that the high walls and bars will cure you, but people like us in prison [for political reasons] find that they are no impediment. Especially if you like to read. You can go to different times and places in history, and experience the freedom of your thoughts and imagination.

Actually it’s they [those in power] who lack freedom, who have made a sort of cocoon for themselves, from which they can’t escape.

Think about it; where can [chief executive] Carrie Lam actually travel to nowadays [in the wake of U.S. sanctions]? Where can she go on vacation? Can she go to any Western countries? She can basically travel around the Pearl River delta, or mainland China. Does she really have that much more freedom than we do?

I realised during my time in prison that grassroots participation in democracy is crucial. It takes widespread participation in civil society to change things from the bottom up.

After I graduated from university, I spent a few years as a social worker. I had two jobs back then; one was to lobby for the construction of a hospital, Eastern District Hospital, and the other was to encourage more local people to stand as candidates in District Council elections. That was the first ever District Council, back in 1982. So I come from a background of supporting elections.

After the 1980s, there was a decline in grassroots participation at community level. When we started the Umbrella Movement, some people said that we shouldn’t stay [occupying the main site near government headquarters] in Admiralty, and we should return to the communities to do more work there.

The [November 2019 District Council elections] were a rare opportunity for so many of us who fight for democracy and support democracy to become District Councilors. I wonder if we should change the way we work, though, if that is still trying to do things in the old way. I think there is something wrong with the idea that I, as your representative, will work on your behalf. It doesn’t make room for civil society.

Reported by Carmen Wu for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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