On Nov. 14, 2018, a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong gave his last lecture, entitled “Tribute to the Enlighteners.” To a standing room-only crowd of over 600 people, professor Chan Kin-man discussed his life of activism, which culminated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a demonstration in support of greater democracy for Hong Kong — a demonstration that lasted 79 days and drew the world’s attention to a moment of political awakening. Chan’s last lecture, at the age of 59, was no ordinary retirement speech. He is now on trial as one of nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement, each of whom face up to 7 years in prison if found guilty of charges that they “conspired to commit public nuisance” and “incited others to commit public nuisance.”
Chan Kin-man is often identified as a professor of sociology — less often so as an alumnus of Yale University. Yet Yale, this community that we all share, is a formative part of his trajectory. Walking the paths that you may have trod just this morning, Chan studied with Juan Linz and Deborah Davis, learning about democratization before applying those lessons in Hong Kong and China, where he spent his career studying and promoting the development of civil society. His humanism is informed by our shared traditions: As an admirer of Van Gogh, he paints; as a student of social movements, he reads Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. This cosmopolitanism enhances his critique of those who argue that the conditions for democracy are not yet ripe in Hong Kong.
Chan framed his farewell lecture as a tribute to those who inspired him, from his Yale teachers to Chinese activists in the 1980s. However, Chan’s supporters made clear that he himself blazed a path for them, both as an intellectual and as a moral example. An open letter from a student, reposted on the Stand News website, described the tearful atmosphere at the “farewell class,” highlighting Chan’s ability to combine sociology with politics, philosophy with religion. The audience served as witness to the fact that that Chan “lived through … his knowledge [xuewen] and his convictions [xinnian].” Chan’s parting words, an integration of both theory and practice, represent what we all might aspire to do with our Yale educations. His quotation of Van Gogh’s teacher makes me think of how Yale inspired me as a student over twenty years ago: “I want you to follow your nature, to create truth, goodness, and beauty. I want you to feel your life is worthy.”
In 1993, Chan Kin-man returned to his hometown to begin a teaching career at what has become one of the best universities in East Asia. He elected to stay in the British colony even when it was about to revert to mainland Chinese rule in 1997; he chose what many of his compatriots did not. By returning to Hong Kong, Chan tied his future to that of Hong Kong; it was an expression of faith in Hong Kong’s values and institutions. Such values include commitment to the rule of law, and freedoms of speech and assembly, as provided for in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the name given to the territory’s constitutional document.
The trial that began on Nov. 19 didn’t merely place the leaders of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement on trial; it is also an attack on the freedoms of speech and assembly. Amnesty International has called this trial a politically motivated prosecution of a peaceful pro-democracy protest, noting that its outcome is consequential for the future of free speech and assembly. By entering their plea of not guilty, the defendants made clear that “once the charge is established, it will create a chilling effect on the Hong Kong public, and the government can purge the entire democratic camp in Hong Kong based on this precedent.”
Yale should stand behind Chan Kin-man, not because he earned his doctorate here, nor because he has continued to serve our community, including meeting with Yale students who go to Hong Kong on academic exchanges. Yale should stand behind professor Chan because he embodies the best of what we stand for: humanistic education, deeply informed activism and the free speech of a democratic society.
Denise Y. Ho is an assistant professor of history at Yale University. Between 2013 and 2015, she taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .