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Hong Kong’s freedom fighter

Christian Benny Tai helps lead the city’s fight for democracy even as Beijing continues its clampdown

Hong Kong’s freedom fighter

(Nora Tam/SCMP/Newscom)

Just before midnight on Jan. 7, legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting solemnly walked out of the Ma On Shan police station in a black coat and a face mask to a scrum of reporters and flashing cameras. A day earlier, police had rounded up Tai and 52 other pro-democracy figures on suspicion of subversion in an early morning raid. Their crime: taking part in an unofficial primary election Tai had spearheaded.

Police released Tai, 56, on bail without charges after more than 30 hours of questioning. They barred him from leaving the city.

“Hong Kong has entered a cold winter. The wind is strong and cold,” he told reporters. “But I believe many Hong Kongers will still use their own way to move forward against the wind.” 

For the past eight years, Tai has walked against the wind by engineering nonviolent strategies—public discussions, strategic voting, and civil disobedience—for Hong Kong citizens in a city that has grown increasingly deaf to the will of the people and the rule of law. Although his plans sounded far-fetched when he proposed them, they’ve had an immense influence in shaping Hong Kong’s democracy movement. 

Authorities sentenced Tai to 16 months in prison for “inciting” the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, and last July he lost his long-held position as an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). With the passage of a draconian national security law last June, his January arrest is likely only the beginning of further punishment.

Despite the dire situation Hong Kong now faces, Tai still holds onto hope of the city’s eventual rebirth. He finds encouragement in the increased civic engagement among Hong Kongers and the growing calls for international sanctions against the Chinese Communist Party. Tai’s activism flows from his Christian faith. 

“As long as there’s injustice in society, as long as authoritarian rule still bars civil liberties, protest is putting faith into practice,” Tai wrote in his 2020 memoir Love and Peace—The Unfinished Journey of Protest.

Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Benny Tai speaks to reporters while leaving the Ma On Shan police station after being granted bail in Hong Kong on Jan. 7. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

BEFORE 2013, Tai was relatively unknown in Hong Kong, his native city. He attended Diocesan Boys’ School, a prestigious Anglican secondary school, yet rejected Christianity. After gaining acceptance to HKU, the best school in the city, he told a classmate “religion is just comfort for the weak. I don’t think I need that right now,” according to his memoir.

A few years later an abrupt breakup with his girlfriend crushed Tai. The blow left him with insomnia and unable to study for his exams to graduate. Tai’s Christian roommate suggested he try praying. Desperate, he looked out his dorm window at the dark, cloudy sky and prayed, “Please let me sleep tonight.” That night, he did. 

The answered prayer led him to follow God, but it wasn’t until the spring of 1990, Tai says, that he became a Christian. While studying for his master’s degree at the London School of Economics, Tai attended a camp organized by a Chinese church where he prayed, “Lord, I’m willing to put my life in Your hands.”

Starting in 2004, he focused his academic research on the intersection of law and religion, and found justice bridged the two. Biblical justice doesn’t just mean helping others on a personal level. It also involves combating systemic injustice through political and legal reforms, Tai wrote. Nonviolent civil disobedience was sometimes necessary to open the public’s eyes to injustices that God hates. 

Looking back, he now sees how his life experiences and research led him to kick-start Occupy Central, one of the largest protest movements in Hong Kong. “It seems that very early on, the Lord who made me and loves me already knew that at the start of 2013 I would start a political movement that’d change Hong Kong,” Tai wrote in the memoir.

May Tse/SCMP/Newscom

Tai at a 2014 rally (May Tse/SCMP/Newscom)

IT STARTED WHEN TAI penned an article titled “Civil Disobedience’s Deadliest Weapon” in Hong Kong Economic Journal. He outlined a plan to occupy the roads in Central, the city’s main business district, to pressure Beijing to allow universal suffrage in the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s chief executive. By then it had been 16 years since the British handed Hong Kong back to China on the basis that Beijing would grant the former colony a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. Yet China’s central government reneged on its promise: It continually delayed allowing Hong Kongers to vote for their leaders.

Tai’s article quickly circulated in Hong Kong and thrust him into the limelight. More comfortable in academia, Tai wanted someone else to lead the pro-democracy movement, but no one stepped up. So he contacted sociology professor Chan Kin-man and democracy activist Pastor Chu Yiu-ming, and the three co-founded Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP).

Tai’s proposed plan included televising Hong Kongers discussing how they wanted to choose their leader, then a referendum on their preferred method. Leaders would submit the winning proposal to the government. If Beijing rejected it, then at least 10,000 people would occupy Central.

The trio announced the creation of the group at Kowloon Union Church in March 2013, two months after Tai’s article was published. Tai pointed to the church’s cross and noted it symbolized the spirit of civil disobedience: The success of the movement depends on the self-sacrifice of citizens.

Tai paid a heavy price: He and his family received death threats that paralyzed him with fear. Chinese state media accused Tai of being a puppet manipulated by the United States in an attempt to foment a revolution. At one point, Tai wondered why at age 48 he had given up a comfortable life for one filled with fatigue and fear. But he says God reassured him.

In June 2014, the online referendum exceeded all expectations: Nearly 800,000 people participated. Yet the celebration quickly ended two months later when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress ruled that Hong Kongers could only pick from two or three preapproved candidates for chief executive. Students boycotted classes and took to the streets over the decision, leading OCLP leaders to launch their protest on Sept. 28.

Thus began the 79-day occupation that saw more than 100,000 protesters take to the streets. With different factions within the pro-democracy camp, the protest quickly veered out of the Occupy trio’s hands. That December, Tai and other key leaders turned themselves in to the police for holding an unauthorized assembly.

Beijing refused to budge, and in 2017 a 1,200-member committee elected Carrie Lam as the city’s chief executive. But the protests accomplished two of Tai’s other goals: They engaged large swaths of the public in civic affairs and attracted the attention of the international community as images of young protesters using umbrellas to fend off riot police appeared on TVs around the world. 

Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tai (center) and other OCLP leaders enter the courtroom at a 2019 sentencing for their roles in the 2014 Occupy protests. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

June Cheng

Erica Kwong