Letter from Prison: Kinman Chan
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Dear Colleagues and ISTR conference participants:
This is a letter from prison. I was sentenced to 16 months of imprisonment by the Hong Kong Court on April 24, 2019 for “inciting” people to join the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. More than one million people took part in that movement by occupying some main roads for 79 days, protesting against Beijing for not keeping its promise to allow the election of the head of Hong Kong’s government through universal suffrage. All along, we promoted non-violent civil disobedience. Though the nine defendants were charged with “conspiracy,” “incitement,” and “incitement to incite others” to cause a public nuisance, our real “crime” is to spread love, peace and hope when the regime wants people to retreat to their private lives due to fear and despair.
The chilling effect the regime had attempted to create through our trial proved futile when 130,000 people took to the street a few days after our sentencing. It was a protest against a proposed “extradition law” that people could be sent back to China for trial there. The number of protestors reached two million people in June, and the Hong Kong government was forced to suspend the bill.
Notwithstanding some physical confrontations when young protestors stormed the parliament (Legislative Council), the movement was tremendously powerful due to the spirit of love and peace. People sang hymns for 9 hours in front of the riot police; hundreds of thousands of protestors made way for the ambulance trucks to pass through the occupied roads, like the scene of “Moses Parting the Red Sea”; and people cleaned up the garbage before they ended the occupation. This extraordinary mobilization was made possible by a vibrant civil society, a strong spirit of non-violent civil disobedience, and extensive use of social media to break the information barriers created by the pro-Beijing mainstream media.
Hong Kong people understand pretty well that civil society is not only for providing services to the needy but also for defending civil rights and promoting social and policy changes. It takes time for people in China to understand the latter two functions, though the regime has begun to embrace the role of NGOs as service providers. In the past two decades, I have been promoting a more holistic idea of civil society in China and Hong Kong through research, teaching, and practice. I see the potential of the theory of civil society in creating a more sustainable governance in an era of uncertainty. Apparently, I ran into trouble for advocating for change in both China and Hong Kong. But it is something inevitable when the change involves a fundamental reconfiguration of power. As a matter of fact, theory of civil society is “theory of power.” I also witnessed the “power of theory” when disseminating the knowledge of civil society under an authoritarian regime!
Life in prison is of course not very pleasant. But for the sake of democracy and open society, I endure it with no regret.
Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong (Retired)
Board of Directors, ISTR
© Copyright Kinman Chan 2019. All rights reserved.