Benny Tai, one of the original leaders of the Hong Kong protests (featured in a long Wall Street Journal interview last summer), is a law professor at Hong Kong University whose expertise includes Constitutional law and, interestingly, training for civil servants. While I was in Hong Kong last month, I had the great privilege, thanks to a mutual friend, of meeting him in his tent in the midst of the protests in the Admiralty section of downtown Hong Kong. His tent is a large structure—somewhat like the tents people rent for graduation parties and the like—that serves as a command center, complete with televisions and ten or twenty people milling around.
When I walked up to the tent, wondering if I was in the right place, Benny and several people around him jumped up and walked over to meet me. I felt pretty impressed with myself at first, thinking that my reputation must have preceded me (as we used to say). Later that day, I learned the real reason I was instantly recognized: my friend had sent a text to Benny, telling him I was on my way and that he should be on the lookout for someone who looked like a tourist.
Two things that Benny said when we talked keep coming to mind as the situation has deteriorated in Hong Kong in the last week or so: he repeatedly emphasized how fluid the situation is—that it could suddenly shift in any direction—and he also emphasized his particular interest in dispute resolution.
This morning’s newspapers suggest that Benny is playing precisely that role. The student leaders who have been the principal face of the movement this Fall seem to have boxed themselves into a corner: by insisting that they will not settle for anything else that complete democracy in the election of Hong Kong’s leader, a demand that it’s impossible to imagine China agreeing to, the students do not seem to have left room for a compromise that might be acceptable to everyone. With frustration growing even among supporters as the protests continue to snarl Hong Kong’s streets, Benny seems to be encouraging to students to back off, at least a bit, in the hope of averting further violence.