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Hong Kong’s People Heard Their Own Voice: Interview with Han Dongfang (text and video excerpts)

January 28, 2015

The Occupy Movement Has been a Huge Success

Human Rights In China: The conventional view is that, currently, both sides of the protest are at an impasse: Beijing has said it will never withdraw the August 31 Decision by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and the students are not withdrawing.

What advice do you have for the students and what do you see is the way out of this impasse?

HAN DONGFANG: I would like to say something about my impression so far. I think the Occupy Movement has been a huge success. It’s much more than I could have imagined during the first few days—because Beijing definitely heard the voice of the Hong Kong people. Don’t tell me they didn’t hear it. How they respond is another subject.

More important is that Hong Kong's people heard their own voice. This is very important for a social movement. Usually we tend to wish that other people, particularly the government, will hear our voice, whether they’re going to change or not. Hong Kong people have never before made such strong statements with their own action, for their own business, and for their very own city.

Screen shows student leader Yvonne Leung during dialogue
with HK gov’t reps, 
Admiralty, October 21, 2014. HRIC photo.

Yes, every year we have our June Fourth candlelight vigil. But that is for what happened in China in 1989, for a group of people who sacrificed themselves. It is paying tribute to them and commemorating them. But this time—it is for our own business. This voice comes from the Hong Kong people and is heard by the Hong Kong people, even though there are clashes and differences. That, to me, is okay. People have different opinions and different behaviors, right? Some people are nasty and some people are violent. Fine. It’s part of the voice.

HRIC: Sometimes you are described as “living in exile,” but I don’t think you believe you’re living in exile—You’re living here! Having lived in Hong Kong for such a long time, but as a mainlander, can you say something about how you see yourself? Are you a mainlander with Hong Kong characteristics? Have you become a Hong Konger, holding onto your mainland roots?

HAN: I think I’m still who I am, and I’m very focused on my work on labor rights. I don’t work on issues in Hong Kong, just mainland. But at the same time, I’ve been living in Hong Kong for 21 years. My identity is that of a Hong Konger. So, I am, you can say, diverse, or divided, or whichever way you want to put it. But this is who I am.

But, both as someone trying to make differences in mainland China while based in Hong Kong, and as someone living in Hong Kong for 21 years, I always keep one thing in my mind: that is, I want to make a difference with our own effort. I don’t put too much in the wish that other people will help us. We do need help—but that’s help. And help will make a difference if you can make your own effort and your own effort becomes a major part of what you do.

The other reason that I think this movement has been really, really successful is: this is the first time since far before 1997 that Hong Kong people have not relied upon what the American president says about Hong Kong or what the British queen or prime minister says about Hong Kong, or been running to the U.S. Congress or to the British parliament. But we sit in Mong Kok, we sit in Admiralty, and we are determined in our demand. So that’s a very, very strong and clear message to ourselves, and to the international community, too. As a Hong Konger, I feel very proud of that, and as a Chinese living in Hong Kong and working on mainland workers’ issues, I find this very, very encouraging.

Recognize the Victory

HRIC: One insight that really struck us, in talking to many people of different ages, who are not well-known, who just want to be there down in Occupy Central, is that people all around are not only demanding democracy, but they’re also taking the space and creating a community where people share food, water, and ideas. I tried to talk to some mothers and their children and they said, “Sit down! Have you eaten yet? Why don’t you have some?” They were offering me their takeout order. And so we took off our shoes and sat with them.

There are also a lot of people taking the initiative, not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. When they see something that needs to be done, they’d say, “Let’s do this. This is a good activity. Let’s organize it.” So, I think that what’s happening is along the lines of what you just said: People are not just demanding something from outside and just saying, “Give us this space”; but they’re creating democratic, public spaces, and saying, “We’re going to shape it.” As Hong Kong-born, I’m also very proud too.

Students’ study area, Admiralty, October 13, 2014. HRIC photo.

Now, having said that, if we take that hopeful lens and turn it on the current situation—which is after the dialogue between students and the Hong Kong government, after the strategic discussions about taking it up another step internationally—what do you think are the options going forward? Everyone says it’s a long-term process, everyone says we’re here for the long-term, we get it. But I’m saying, how do we move a little bit past this current stuck moment?

HAN: One of the things that we should do, or the organizers should do, is recognize the victory and the success—again, again, again, repeatedly—and stop thinking that we haven’t gained anything. Because if you are continually thinking that “we haven’t gained anything,” then, psychologically, you are stuck.

What they have gained immediately is, as you just described: they have created a community in Mong Kok. And the process itself is more important to me than whether their three demands, or two demands, have been met, or whether you’ve achieved half or 80 percent of your demands. Let’s think of it this way, democracy is a long-term process, rather than a one-goal kind of achievement, or gains that you measure by percentage—50, 70, or 100 percent. Just walk in Admiralty, or walk through Mong Kok, and you will see a kind of democratic self-education happening, and it’s happening in Hong Kong—this business-oriented city. No one, certainly not I, has ever thought that it could go this way. So this is a short-term success and this generation has awakened.

And second, this generation is not going to die next month. They’re growing stronger and stronger into adulthood, middle-age, their 50s, to participate in future Hong Kong politics and social policymaking. And many of them will be government people in the future. So, think about the future impact—20, 30 years from now. This success is immeasurable.

Admiralty, October 29, 2014. HRIC photo.

So only if you’re able to recognize that you have succeeded will you be able to think about a solution as an alternative. Otherwise, there is no solution, and you’d have to continue to stay there in order to get 100 percent satisfaction. Therefore, I want to make this point repeatedly that first, you, as an organizer, have to recognize this victory, and then, strategically, you’d have to make sure the people who are sleeping there, sitting there, or those who will come potentially, will recognize this victory also. And then, after creating this atmosphere, you can say, “Okay, after this victory, what do we do?”

So, that’s turning the page. Otherwise, you’re just stuck in it. And I think this is the moment when people—most of the people—are ready for claiming that victory.

And after that, the next step is to create a mechanism. Street action cannot just end there, in the streets. There has to be a mechanism. When I go through Mong Kok and Admiralty, I see excitement and a group of people but, at the same time, not much leadership. There’s not one person—or one organization—who can represent the whole movement. And this fact has to be recognized. Therefore, there has to be some mechanism that can represent most of the voices in order to persuade people to recognize the victory and then mobilize this victory.

And then, in this atmosphere, you can lead people to leave the streets and get back to normal life. And you can create the space that is necessary for people to work on the details. The people include, for example, LegCo members, lobbyists, people in think-tanks, and the Chinese government—whoever is able to contribute to this and provide ideas. And I believe instead of dumping the National People’s Congress’ decision into the trash, there’s still a big enough space within that framework to turn around, to work out a compromise between both sides, and to make a new solution. I think so.

Give Some Credit to the Opposition

HRIC: From Beijing’s perspective, aside from saying, “Thank god, we didn’t have to call out the People’s Liberation Army and recreate the disaster of 1989,” what is it that the authorities in Beijing can look at and say, “You know, this is good too, now let’s go forward,” in exactly the same way you’re suggesting the students and the organizers can think of this? How can Beijing see a win-win seed in this moment?

HAN: When you recognize a victory, especially in this kind of peaceful street action, you shouldn’t avoid giving credit to the opposition. There can’t be a peaceful victory with efforts from one side only, to be honest. That’s my way of thinking. Maybe many people would disagree and maybe this is one of the most politically incorrect points to make, but I don’t mind making it, which has to do with who made the decision to launch tear gas and created, I think, the most dramatic scene in the Occupy Central movement to-date. Many people tend to believe it was Beijing, and many other people don’t believe it was Beijing. I believe it was not Beijing but rather the Hong Kong police and C.Y. Leung. Perhaps not even C.Y. Leung himself, but the Hong Kong police chief or some other people saying, “It’s two, three days before the October 1 National Day celebration. If we don’t clean up this mess, Beijing won’t be happy about this.” So, they guessed what Beijing was thinking and were in a hurry to clean up the streets. That was a completely wrong assumption.

So, maybe Beijing did think that way. But, too bad, it was the Hong Kong people who initiated it and the shit is on their hands and they made that decision. I don’t think Beijing pushed them. That’s point one. Second, I don’t know whether you realize this: after the tear gas was launched, and all those dramatic pictures on TV and in newspapers and the Internet—almost right after that, the next day, the police didn’t wear hats. Rather casual. Why is that?

Mong Kok, October 14, 2014. HRIC photo.

I believe that that was when Beijing gave them guidance: “Take it easy.” And the Hong Kong government acted accordingly. Before that, there was no clear guidance and the Hong Kong police were guessing what the boss was thinking about this. Now the boss said, maybe—this is my guess—said, “No more of those dramatic pictures, please. They would only remind people about 1989 and about what we did— not what we did, but what the previous guys did—all those bloody things. It’s not good for us. Please do anything else, but don’t create those pictures again.”

So the Hong Kong police decide to not make their men on the streets even wear hats. And that really changed the atmosphere. So I would say, in that, we have to give Beijing that credit—they are much more reasonable than we thought, or much more reasonable than what many people thought, that they could have sent in the PLA. But I don’t think the PLA was an option even for a second in Xi Jinping’s mind. This was not the time for him to show his power—it would have been suicidal. You think he is having a good time, and he’s the most powerful man on earth? No, he’s the weakest, and he has the shittiest job on earth. And Bo Xilai is waiting in prison, having a good life, and watching Xi Jinping make mistakes. Xi Jinping simply has too much on his plate. He has no shortage of trouble on his plate and he was not about to add one more, from Hong Kong. So, I believe, he wants to make sure that Hong Kong would not go over the edge. And I think for what happened over the last more-than-a-month since the tear gas, we should give Beijing credit. Beijing could have pushed for it—they could have been mad enough to commit suicide, but they didn’t, and they’re being more reasonable. And therefore, recognize our own achievement, our own victory, and recognize the opposition’s effort as well.

And in Beijing, they should feel proud about themselves for not creating a dramatic picture, with tear gas, or even rubber bullets. It’s a gain for Beijing. Thinking about the world, I wonder how many people are actually kind of disappointed that there is no dramatic picture.

Mong Kok, October 14, 2014. HRIC photo.

Not only that. They allow Mong Kok to stay like this? A dictatorship government allowing this to happen in Admiralty, with no solution for what, more than one month? And they’re still tolerating it. It’s not to say they deserve credit for being a democratic regime, but at least, for being an open-minded regime. They achieved at least that. I believe many Hong Kong people recognize that and appreciate Beijing’s behavior so far.

Be Willing to Compromise, Be Creative

HRIC: I’ve been talking to a lot of workers, taxicab drivers, service people, store clerks, people in those little stalls in the street, and almost everyone I’ve talked to is saying, “Of course, we’re against Occupy Central.” But after I talked a little bit more with them, they’d say things like: “The students have good demands, but the way they are doing it is wrong”; or “Too fast, they’re impatient, they are young”; or “They’re affecting my business, my grocery shopping, and it’s hard for me get around to take care of my father–in-law.” What ideas do you have for engaging ordinary citizens who cannot actually go sit in Admiralty, or Mong Kok, or anywhere all day, who really aren’t sure but feel they don’t like the impact on their daily lives?

HAN: As trade unionists, we have to be realistic. I don't ask the workers to follow my thinking; it’s the other way around: I follow their need. That’s just the reality. What is democracy? It’s for making people’s lives better. You cannot ask people to sacrifice their livelihood and business in the short-term for what they do not know will be realized in the future. So, it has to be about the short term, it has to be about now.

For example, in the labor movement in China, there are many people who wish for an event like Solidarity in Poland, the labor movement that played a role in bringing down the communist party there. They think that that would be the most powerful and organized way to bring down the communist party in China in the future. It’s true. But, at the same time, if you go to the strike sites—the electronics factories, shoe factories, and garment factories—and ask the workers: Do you want to get into this political fight to see your strike event as part of the labor movement to bring down the communist party regime, to gain a democratic regime. They’d say, “Get lost. It has nothing to do with me.”

See? They just want their salaries. But gaining salaries and gaining a better life doesn’t mean you’re not moving towards a more democratic regime. And that’s why we push for workers’ rights to collective bargaining. Before you can gain a democratic regime or elect the president, we gain at the factory level: workers can elect their representatives to bargain on their behalf. That’s realizing democracy in their daily life first—so that it becomes a way of life. It’s not something written on a banner, to satisfy some thinkers, some activists. It’s the other way around—it’s the activists who work to satisfy people’s lives.

So, back to Hong Kong. I’ll say, you have to let people see the benefits of the movement. I may be a bit crazy and dramatic. But I want to offer two points. One, you have to be willing to compromise and not hold yourself politically correct, morally high, in opposition to the dictatorship, the Chinese regime. If you are keeping your chin high for the sake of it and don’t want to lose face, that wouldn’t make anyone see your sincerity and that you’re fighting for their interests. That would make people suspicious and not trust you. Therefore, show your willingness to compromise, be reasonable, recognize even the opposition’s, the government’s, effort in this. Doing that, I’ll say, you may make these taxi drivers able to say, “Oh! I see these are reasonable guys. They are really trying their best to make progress. And I respect these guys. And I may sacrifice a little bit more.”

Second, even more dramatic, even more crazy: Make a proposal to the Hong Kong environmental department and the transportation department and recommend a tramway in the future, from Mong Kok, or from Prince Edward to Tsim Sha Tsui, with a stop every three hundred meters, no more buses, but with bikes and pedestrians on the side. That’ll make these small shop business owners see the longer-term future. “Hey! Nice! If people can walk on this whole street, be on their bikes, or be on the tram—no pollution, no noisy buses, and no smelly gas. In five years, this can be the result of the Occupy Movement, and I’ll have more business.” Just think about that.

Shrine to Garuda, Buddhist symbol of martial prowess, for protection
of Hong Kong, Mong Kok, October 14, 2014. HRIC photo.

What I mean is: be more creative and don’t only stick to the few demands that you began with. If you walk in Mong Kok, in Admiralty, you see many creative things. That’s what a social movement needs to be. I’m not trying, as an old man from 1989, to give some “wise” suggestions. But there are solutions.

For example, why not recommend a plan that can work within the framework of the NPCSC decision, so that the NPC does not lose face, and which wouldn’t make you lose face, but gain more respect instead. What is that? You can recommend this: Take the 70 LegCo members out of the 1,200-member Nominating Committee and get another 70 people to replace them. Then give equal nominating status to the 70 LegCo members whom you have taken out of the 1,200-member Nominating Committee so that if you want to run for the election, you can either get nomination from the 1,200, or you can get more than 35 of these 70. These 70 LegCo members were elected by the Hong Kong people so they have credibility with the people; at the same time, they are legitimately recognized by the NPC framework. There are many other possibilities within the framework. This is only one of them.

Chinese characters: “Civic nomination is absolutely necessary,” 
Admiralty, October 10, 2014. HRIC photo.

Again, as a labor guy, what I believe are: bargaining and win-win solutions. We don’t believe in having one side completely winning, and the other side completely losing. So this is the mentality that, I would say, fundamental change needs.

Market Economy is a One-Way Journey Towards Democracy

HRIC: From this win-win mentality, you’ve also said very powerfully and clearly and publically, and often, that you believe that democracy is inevitable on the mainland. First, why do you believe that still? And second, when democracy comes to the mainland—I also believe that it will come—is that also going to be a win-win for the Party?

HAN: Basically, it is because of the economic structure that had begun 35 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping decided to transition to a market economy. At that moment, he opened the Pandora’s Box, and there’s no way to get things back. This is a one-way journey. At that time, maybe Deng Xiaoping didn’t realize that, and maybe no one realized that, it is a one-way journey towards democracy.

But 35 years later, we have to recognize this and admit that that would happen in China. We don’t have democracy yet. But the society has been diversified economically, with a self-interests orientation. And that level of diversity of self-interests in this country cannot be sustained in a dictatorship regime. That’s just as simple as that. Even if the entire population, 1.4 billion people, wish Mao to come back, there is no way. As soon as that guy comes back, or the same idea comes back, your own daily life, as what it is now, will have to go differently. And you don’t want that.

Therefore, this is not a compliment to the Communist Party, or a belief that it will be open-minded and become democratic. No! It’s the way that people have gotten used to how they live. No way back. And this way of living cannot be forever under a dictatorship. There are bound to be people who will get involved in decision-making on affairs around their daily life. So what’s that? That’s democracy. Again, the immediate first step is not necessarily voting for the president of the country. The first thing that will be realized is a system of decision-making around people’s daily life. In a workers’ movement, it is about salary, working conditions, holidays, social security, it is about how to make sure the boss will pay all these things in a reasonable way, and how to make sure how the workers are involved in this process.

So that is what I call democracy. Maybe a lot of people don’t realize that that’s democracy. They would say, “That’s bullshit. If this is democracy, what about Xi Jinping? And who chose Xi Jinping?” Well, morally, I can’t make this argument. But I do believe that if there are workplace elections of representatives, at least people can bargain—let’s say, 30 people can bargain on behalf of 3,000 people and these 30 are elected—and this is democracy in real life. So that’s mainly the reason why I say no one can stop democracy.

I don’t believe there are stupid people on earth, especially when they consider their own self-interest. I do believe that the Communist Party, the current leadership, they know how to calculate their own future individually and collectively. They may not say: we believe in democracy. But it would be an extraordinary exception if this group of people doesn’t know how to calculate their own future, and it would mean that they don’t know that China cannot avoid a future with a democratic regime. But I do put some basic trust in that they do realize that this will be the future of China, particularly based on the fact that this would be the only way out for themselves. So, even just in terms of self-interest calculation, they will have to move that way. The only difference is how fast we wish them to move and how fast they think they can afford to move. So that’s another topic for debate.

Democracy is about How to Cut the Cake

HRIC: What are your observations about cultural shifts on the mainland over the past 35 years and in Hong Kong since 1997? And how do you see mainlanders and Hong Kongers relate to each?

HAN: Let me tell you one case. For the past four or five years, the Guangdong government has been trying to pass legislation to give a certain degree of right to collective bargaining to factory workers. They solicited consultations at least twice. It’s not a perfect bill, but it shows the government’s willingness. And it shows that the government understands that it can’t afford to be without this mechanism; otherwise, there would be too many strikes.

Guess who are the people most against the legislation? Hong Kong’s manufacturers business associations—49 of them, big and small. And they put the biggest effort in lobbying the Guangdong government, and they even sent a big lobby group to lobby Beijing to postpone it, to not to have this legislation. Their main argument was that they have been contributing to this country’s economy. Now if the government does that to them, then it’s not recognizing their contribution, and it would kill them.

Look, I believe that when they are back in Hong Kong, many of them—particularly the small manufacturer businesses—not all of them, but definitely some of them, would vote for the Civic Party and Democratic Party. They wouldn’t vote for pro-Beijing parties. But when it comes down to their own business, their own convenience to exploit workers in China continuously in order to maintain the same amount of profits, they would go against the Chinese government’s move to give democratic rights to workers. Do you want to judge these people morally? I don’t. I would rather view this in the context of self-interest.

So democracy, at the end of the day, is about how to cut the cake. Democracy is not a label, something nice to say, like “Oh, if you belong to the democratic camp, therefore you’re nicer people, and these other people belong to the dictatorship camp, therefore they are devils.” No!

And as a worker, I don’t have investment, I don’t have capital, and I don’t even have the bloody intelligence to run a business. And I don’t have any idea about the market. But I know how to make these things on a production line, that’s it! But I feel proud of my ability to do this work. And therefore, I deserve reasonable pay—a salary to take care of my family—with social security, and holidays to spend time with my family. So these are the things that I deserve, and this is the portion of the cake I want to cut for myself. So democracy is a system to guarantee this, eventually for ordinary people.

HRIC: Recently, we see instances of clashes and conflicts between mainland visitors to Hong Kong and local Hong Kongers. And some of the clashes have been attributed to cultural differences. Can you comment on that? Do you think there are big cultural differences between mainlanders and Hong Kongers?

HAN: Culture to different people and in different environments could mean different things. So, it could mean the way you behave, the level of education, whether you read a lot, or you don’t. For example, I don’t read much, so perhaps I’m not cultured. To me, if you compare Hong Kong and the Mainland, the major difference is the background. Over the last 150 years, Hong Kong people have lived differently than the mainland people.

When I first came to Hong Kong as a mainlander, I thought Hong Kong people tended to be cold and distant. You know, in mainland China, we believe in family, good friends, no space. But not having space means that people don’t have to recognize rules. After a while, then boom, we explode. It’s because I realize that you are selfish, and you’ll realize that I’m selfish. We’re supposed to be buddies and shouldn’t be calculating against each other. But, at the end of the day, everyone could be calculating.

In Hong Kong, people tend to have a clear space between each other. Over time, I got used to that. It’s good to have some clean, clear kind of space, and awareness of how much I can do to help you, and how much you can do to help me. And if we cannot, sorry, it’s out of my ability. So you would understand.

To me, as a new Hong Konger, having lived here for 21 years, I think the most valuable, the core thing in Hong Kong is not culture, democracy, or freedom; it is the judicial system that the British helped to build in Hong Kong. It is how beautifully the judicial system functions, how clean and precise it is, and how the lawyers and judges behave in the courtroom. Along with that judicial system, the idea of rule of law affects people’s daily lives.

So, what is rule of law? It’s the respect for things that we both agree on. And it is about daily life. It’s not about only a banner, a word, or a concept. It’s about working this term into people’s daily lives.

Again, back to my business. The collective bargaining process in work places—is it about workers’ rights only? No! It’s about mutual respect based on the spirit of contract. What is rule of law? What is democracy? It’s the spirit of contract and the respect for contract. How do you get a contract, when the other side is too strong and I don't have the rights to bargain with you? You need to have a bargaining system whereby my bargaining position is equal to yours, even if you are the one with money, whereby I will respect you because you’re a boss, whereby even if you’re only one person and we are 5,000, we wouldn’t kill you. So that’s respect—equal positions to bargain for a contract, and respect for the contract. That will be a strong driving force that propels the society toward a future with rule of law in this country. That will give China a stronger foundation on which to build democracy and freedom.

HRIC: Great! Thank you so much, Dongfang. This is really, really terrific.

HAN: Thank you!

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About Han Dongfang

Han Dongfang (韩东方) has been an advocate for workers' rights in China for more than two decades. As a railway worker in Beijing, he helped set up the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF) during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. After the June 4 crackdown, Han was imprisoned for 22 months without trial. He spent a year in the U.S. from 1992 to 1993 for medical treatment. On his return, he was expelled to Hong Kong, where he still lives today. In 1994, he established China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour organization that defends Chinese workers’ rights. In addition to his work at CLB, Han is on the board of Human Rights in China, and conducts regular interviews with Chinese workers on Radio Free Asia. (Photo courtesy of Han Dongfang.)

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