THE END OF THE Umbrella Movement left many activists discouraged and hopeless. But Tai set his eyes on the 2016 legislative election. In Hong Kong’s semi-democratic system, voters elect only half the seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo). So Tai proposed Project ThunderGo, an election drive to prevent pro-Beijing lawmakers from reaching a two-thirds majority.
In the end, the pro-democracy bloc made significant gains, winning 29 of the 70 seats. But the excitement was again short-lived: In March 2017, the government arrested Tai and eight other Occupy leaders on obscure public nuisance charges. A few months later, a Hong Kong court disqualified six of the newly elected pro-democracy lawmakers for criticizing China while taking their oaths of office.
Still, Tai kept busy. In 2017 he unveiled Project Storm, which focused on the 2019 election for district councilors, a local government position that typically leaned pro-establishment. He hoped to double the number of pro-democracy district councilors to more than 200 of the 431 seats—giving them more sway in the election committee that selects the chief executive.
He encouraged more democracy supporters to run for district council and held training sessions for those interested in running. But in April 2019 Hong Kong courts found Tai guilty of two public nuisance charges and sentenced him to 16 months in prison. Every day in his jail cell Tai read Psalms, a habit he continued after he was released four months later on bail while awaiting appeal.
The Hong Kong he returned to after stepping out of the detention center was wildly different: In June, the Hong Kong government drafted an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kongers to stand trial in mainland Chinese courts. That set off the anti-extradition law protests in 2019 that lasted more than six months. One result of the protests—and the heavy-handed response from the government—is that Project Storm barreled ahead as people turned out in droves to vote in the November district council election. Pro-democracy candidates won a whopping 388 seats, holding majorities in 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 districts.
In a New York Times op-ed, Tai noted that while the pro-democracy camp’s “astonishing victory” can’t fix Hong Kong’s undemocratic systems, “it is a fresh opportunity to cultivate the city’s democratic spirit … when our time comes to fully and freely exercise real democracy, the Hong Kong people will be ready for it.”
RIDING THE WAVE of victory, Tai proposed his “35-plus” plan of holding a primary within the pro-democracy camp ahead of the 2020 LegCo elections to maximize the chances of winning a majority. With at least 35 seats, pro-democracy officials could block bills and pressure the government to take on the protesters’ demands.
Yet weeks before the primary took place last July, Beijing dealt another blow to Hong Kong by implementing the national security law. Suddenly even reciting the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” could lead to a sedition charge.
Hong Kong authorities warned that participating in the unofficial primary could violate the new law, pointing to an article Tai had written in April detailing 10 steps to laam chau, a term used among protesters that translates to “If we burn, you burn with us.” In it, he says if pro-democracy lawmakers won a majority, they could vote down the annual budget. According to the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution), that would trigger the dissolution of LegCo as well as the resignation of the chief executive. Yet Tai argued the primary was solely to help the public choose the best candidates, none of whom was required to adhere to his 10 steps and veto the budget.
The day before the primary, police raided the research office that set up the website and app for the primary, alleging a data leak.
Still, about 610,000 Hong Kongers showed up, lining up at polling stations at the offices of district councilors, street corners, restaurants, and even a converted double-decker bus. Some residents held up umbrellas to block the sun as they waited in the nearly 90-degree heat. Police officers patrolled certain polling stations, some taking photos, but did not interfere.
After the success, another stunning blow: Besides barring 12 primary winners from running for office, the Hong Kong government made the primary moot by delaying the September elections for a year, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, the Hong Kong government has removed four pro-democracy lawmakers for “threatening national security,” which led the remaining 15 pro-democracy lawmakers to resign in solidarity. Today, pro-Beijing lawmakers mostly fill LegCo.
Then came the Jan. 6 crackdown on 53 people involved in the primary, including organizers and candidates. If Tai and the others are charged and convicted, they could face up to life in prison.
YING FUK-TSANG, a professor at the divinity school at Chinese University of Hong Kong, described Tai as a “frustrated sower” persisting in sowing hope in a free Hong Kong. His perseverance is rooted in God’s calling in the Bible, including to “do justly and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).
After HKU fired Tai in July from the position he had held for nearly 30 years, rather than wallowing and giving up, he did what he does best: initiate a new plan. This one, called Project Lazarus, has a long-term goal—to prepare Hong Kongers for the rebirth of the city’s rule of law after tyranny ends. Through his online Patreon account, he teaches classes to educate local citizens about the law and plans to facilitate citywide discussions—similar to those held during Occupy Central—on what a new, democratic Hong Kong could look like. He is also working on a book that would explain the rule of law in layman’s terms.
Tai summed up his life philosophy during his closing argument at the Occupy Central trial in 2018: “If we are truly guilty, then our crime is daring to sow hope even in this difficult time in Hong Kong. I’m not afraid or ashamed to go to prison. If this cup of suffering cannot be taken away, I will drink it without regret.”
—This story appears in the Feb. 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Freedom fighter.”