Pro-democracy activists will come out stronger if they are not crushed, Occupy co-founder Chan Kin-man said on Wednesday at a talk ahead of his upcoming trial over the 2014 protests.

Speaking to a full house of over 600 people, with many attendees forced to sit on the floor, Chan was giving his last talk at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, where he is a sociology professor. He is set to appear in court next Monday.

Chan Kin-man. Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Six others facing trial also attended the talk, including Occupy co-founders Benny Tai and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. The audience – many were his former students – gave Chan and those facing trial several standing ovations

“I am prepared to go to jail,” he said. “So long as we are not crushed by the trial and the prison sentence, and we do not become depressed or angered, then we will come out stronger.”

“Yes, we may need to go to jail, but those in power may not win – those who send you to jail may not win,” he said.

Photo: Ezra Cheung.

He said he was not pessimistic about the future and he has no anger or sadness, only gratitude. He said he was moved by the support he and others received: “It makes me believe in the goodness in people – it is our hope. I hope you do not give up – we can only see the stars in the darkest hours.”

Chan, 59, said he asked for early retirement on December 31, which was approved by the university, meaning Wednesday’s talk would be his last.

Photo: Ezra Cheung.

At the end of the lecture, Chan quoted a conversation between Vincent van Gogh and his teacher. Chan, a painter himself, is an avid admirer of the Dutch post-impressionist artist.

“I want to tell my students: I want you to follow your nature, create truth, goodness, beauty, I want you to feel your life is worthy,” he said.

The talk, entitled Tribute to the Enlighteners focused on Chan’s journey as an activist. Chan said the first protest he took part in was in 1977, over school mismanagement at the Jubilee Secondary School.

From left: Tommy Cheung, Shiu Ka-chun, Tanya Chan, Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, Chu Yiu-ming. Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Chan said that, at the time, he had many existential questions. He pointed to the book Tragic Sense of Life by Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno and Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Chan, Chu and Tai are each facing three charges: conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance. The maximum term for public nuisance is seven years.

‘Won by peaceful means’

Turning to issues surrounding democracy, Chan said he was inspired by Chinese activists Wei Jingsheng – who was jailed in 1979 for calling for democracy – and Hu Ping, who urged for freedom of speech.

Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Chan went to Yale University in the US for his doctoral studies. There, he said he was influenced by Professor Juan J. Linz, a leading Spanish expert on democratisation.

When Chan returned to Hong Kong from Yale, he focused his work on civil society, as well as the democratisation of Hong Kong. He said the city has all the necessary conditions for democracy.

“Some people say Hong Kong does not have the adequate conditions – bullshit,” Chan said.

Chan Kin-man. Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Speaking about civil disobedience, Chan said he was inspired by American essayist Henry David Thoreau, activist Martin Luther King and Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi.

“Some say they only won democracy under civilised regimes… but research has shown that most democracies were won by peaceful means,” he said. “In the past few decades, violence rarely led to democracy.”

Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Photo: Ezra Cheung.

“We can only keep using peaceful means to protest,” he added.

After the talk, Occupy co-founder Benny Tai was asked if he had any regrets inviting Chan and Chu to lead the movement. Tai said he only gave their names when he was asked who he would invite during an interview.

“No other people in Hong Kong could have led this movement – only them two – I have no regrets,” Tai said.

Photo: Ezra Cheung.

Another co-founder Reverend Chu said he felt sad: “The Chinese University students will lose a good teacher… The two professors sacrificed a lot – I am a pastor with nothing, I am honoured to be with them.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.