This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (you can read previous interviews here).
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Joseph Chan worked for three decades as Professor in the Department of Politics of Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. After Beijing’s crackdown on the 2019 protests in Hong Kong and the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong in July 2020, he left Hong Kong for Taiwan. He now lives and works in Taipei as a distinguished research fellow at the Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, Academia Sinica. Throughout his career, Joseph was a public intellectual well-known to politicians, activists and ordinary citizens in Hong Kong, and played some roles in Hong Kong politics, including as a mediator between the government and student protestors in 2014. We talked about how he got into political theory, his work in integrating Confucian political philosophy with Western liberalism, the tensions and limits of being a public intellectual, and his recent interest in the ethics of violence and protest.
SYC: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got interested in political theory?
JC: I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I started going to the Baptist church in the final years of primary school, and in the first few years I went there just because it was a lot of fun. I played football and basketball with people, and I also joined the choir and learned to play the guitar. So it was the music and friendship that attracted me, but later I became really serious about the religion itself, about Christianity. That got me thinking, and I started to think at a level that wasn’t common for my friends who didn’t have any interest in philosophy. I started to think about the meaning of life, and why religion is important to life, all those abstract questions. When I went to university, I started to reevaluate my religious beliefs. I raised a lot of critical questions about the foundations of my religion. I was a young man who was hungry for intellectual stimulation, my Christian faith ceased to satisfy that hunger. So I began to look to other sources of intellectual stimulation, and became very interested in philosophy and did a minor in it. But I majored in politics. I like to think critically about abstract ideas or higher level questions, but I also care about society and politics. I think that’s why I didn’t become a philosopher, I didn’t put my energy into other fields of philosophy like metaphysics or logic. Although intellectually I was curious about those things too, I had a commitment to the human life. So political philosophy or political theory became a nice way of satisfying both.
SYC: That makes a lot of sense! Do you remember what sorts of political events were happening at the time when you were an undergraduate starting to get interested in political theory? What was the political environment like in Hong Kong? How did this shape your decision to become a political theorist?
JC: At the time there was the big question about the future of Hong Kong. I entered the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1979, and it was around 1980 or 1981 when suddenly the issue of the future of Hong Kong popped up. There were questions about whether the UK and China would extend the UK’s lease over the New Territories and Kowloon, or whether they would be given back. So I asked a lot of fundamental questions about my identity: who am I? am I Chinese or am I a Hongkong-nese? What does Hong Kong stand for? Should Hong Kong go into a path of development different and disconnected with China, or should it become part of China again, in the hope that both would become better eventually?
Another issue that was very salient on university campuses was the situation of the poor. Students argued that Hong Kong’s society and economy were deeply unjust, and the term ‘social justice’ appeared a lot. So I asked myself, what does social justice actually mean? What are the principles of social justice? I read John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, which had come out 9-10 years before. And then I found myself in disagreement with a lot of what he said. I was very interested in political theory in the Western tradition.
I also studied a yearlong course in Chinese philosophy. My interest in Confucianism developed in three different phases. First, through a reading of the works of modern Confucian scholars. I had much to learn from, and agree with, their attempt to integrate Confucianism with Western democratic thought. I grew up in HK, in the 1970s and 80s, then a colony of the UK. The local traditional, Confucian Chinese culture was primarily left untouched by colonial noninterventionist policies—unlike in mainland China, where it was denounced by government-led political campaigns. Many Hong Kong people’s experience of Chinese Confucian culture was positive, and British culture was not negative, despite its domination through colonial rule. I – and many HK people – experienced not so much a clash of Chinese and Western cultures as their mutuality. Through persistence, creativity, and pragmatism, the men and women of Hong Kong—both Chinese and British—turned what would otherwise be dogmatic antagonism into productive integration.
The second phase was when I began to think about going abroad to pursue graduate study in political philosophy. Many of my college teachers advised against it. They told me, you won’t be able to compete with Western students. You’re not a native speaker of English, you don’t know Latin or German, how can you compete with these people? Still, one teacher approved and encouraged me to do it, for he said China didn’t have a political philosophy suitable for the world. He said we needed people to study political philosophy to help develop one for modern Chinese society. I found this daunting task too much for me at the time. I thought I would do this only after immersing myself in Western political philosophy for two to three decades to build a solid foundation for developing a new Confucian political philosophy. But that task, or mission, was somehow imprinted in my mind. And when I went to Oxford for the DPhil, I did my dissertation on Aristotle, with the intention that one day I’d work on Confucius. I saw a connection and a lot of similarity between the classical Greek tradition and the Confucian tradition.
The third phase was after I returned to HK in 1990 and began teaching at HKU, I was often asked by foreign scholars at conferences what I thought about the Chinese or Confucian perspective on hot issues of the day – and during that time those were about human rights, democracy, and Asian values. As a student of Western political thought, I found myself totally unprepared for these questions, so I had no choice but to start the project of understanding and reconstructing Confucian political thought to see if it could shed light on contemporary issues.
SYC: It sounds like you never had a doubt that a political theory for China would have to at least have roots in the Chinese political tradition, and that you couldn’t do it just by drawing on and ‘localizing’ the Western canon, eg. liberalism.
I was attracted to the Confucian tradition for two main reasons. One, it’s because it’s a Chinese tradition, with 2,000 years of history and development, so it’s extremely rich and interesting. Second, I agreed with many of Confucius’ insights about values, human society, and human life, and I think it’s well-preserving and well-expanding. And of course those insights were perfectionist insights: the place of the good life in society and politics, the place of virtue in people’s good life, and so on. As I said, in the beginning I was a Christian. As a Christian I was also interested in questions about the good life and virtue – Christians talk about how to treat people, good character, how to develop relations with each other. I was nurtured by these ideas, and I thought the good life was important for ethics and politics as well. So, liberalism is something that I admire, and I find it extremely important as a modern tradition. But I never thought, even before I really went into the project of reconstructing Confucian political philosophy, that the answer for China’s development would simply be a purely Western liberalism. I thought there must be a role for some liberal traditions, especially liberal institutions. But I was also sure that the Chinese Confucian tradition had important and valuable insights for contemporary China as well. So my job then became a task of integration.
SYC: Great. So the Western reception of your book has generally been great—people have been very interested in this kind of work that integrates different political traditions. What about the Chinese reception of your book? After all, you had the future development of China in mind when you were working on the project.
JC: The book came out in English, so at first it didn’t get much attention in China. In Taiwan and Singapore there was more attention, people formed study groups and read the book, invited me for interviews and talks, etc. But I wasn’t considered by mainland Chinese academics as a ‘real’ scholar of Confucianism, because I hadn’t had their training, and also they wanted to develop modern Confucianism in a totally different direction. They had their schools of thought, whereas I belonged to none. But after the book got attention in Western academia, there was more interest amongst Chinese scholars. So in a way my theory got exported and then was re-imported back to China.
SYC: That’s really interesting. Let’s talk a bit about your role as a public intellectual in Hong Kong then, and how you see the tensions and possibilities that came with that role.
JC: Growing up in Hong Kong, I had a strong identity as a Hong Kong citizen, but not in opposition to my Chinese identity. I saw myself as a Hong Kong Chinese, and as a Hong Kong Chinese, I somehow thought that being an academic requires being a good citizen as well. That is, you have to be a public intellectual. In the Chinese tradition we call this shi (士) – a scholar is never a pure academic working in the ivory tower. Shi should be concerned about the well-being of the people in which he/she lives, the social and political issues.
That’s why I started writing in newspapers, giving interviews on TV, and so on. Then eventually people started inviting me to participate in various organizations, including establishing a new political party and creating a new thinktank. I must say I have a ‘soft spot’ for these invitations, as I thought I had a commitment to do something for the people of Hong Kong. But I didn’t become a full-time politician. I spent some part of my time in politics helping political entities to develop and grow, but I quickly found out that I couldn’t do much if I only participated in politics in an amateur way. To really have some contributions in politics, I would need to devote much more time. But I couldn’t, and it was not my calling to give up my academic work either. So often I would be involved in setting something up, but quickly I’d leave, partly because there are many strong-minded people who had much more time to devote to politics, and when I disagreed with them, I couldn’t change things unless I was willing to participate as much.
So there are many tensions and difficulties in trying to be a shi. And this is especially the case in Hong Kong politics, because within our civil society there was often not well-set up, long-established and well-resourced organizations that you could just join. You were always involved in the building the machinery. And on the other hand, you have single-issue standing committees that are supposed to advise the government, but I don’t think you actually have the ability to influence the outcome. If your political participation is limited to this, then your influence is very small and narrow. To genuinely influence policy and political change, it’s very difficult.
Another tension is that sometimes you have to make compromise. Luckily for me, in terms of my political philosophy, I’m a moderate. I can see that there are competing values that can’t be easily reconcilable. So even in my philosophical commitments, I’m not against the idea of compromise. But in politics, the need for compromise is much greater. It’s not that you can simply think it through and arrive at a balance between competing values. More often you have to compromise because of power imbalances: if I’m in a minority, and those you work with are in the majority. So you have to give way because you’re not going to win. You can still get a little bit of concession from them, but from the outside people will say you’ve sold out the agenda, you’ve sold out your conscience, while on the inside you know how difficult it was to even just get that little bit of concession. So that kind of compromise is far more difficult to swallow, especially as a political philosopher. Your actions become guided by political considerations.
SYC: Are there any examples you can share?
JC: I participated in my university’s highest decision-making body, the Council. It’s a political body, especially in Hong Kong, where universities are seen by the government as sites of political activism and where important social movements have historically grown out of. I was an elected member, facing a majority of conservative members who were outsiders—they weren’t academics or student representatives, they were successful business elites, professionals, appointed by the government, and they had a very different political ideology than mine. I always tried to communicate with them, argue with them, but because I was in the minority, I had to compromise. For example, on the decision to reform the constitutional structure of the university, the process for selecting the Vice-Chancellor of the university. It was a highly political issue. In the end I had to compromise, and they also made some compromises, but I had compromised far more in the eyes of the pro-democracy politicians and activists. So I was criticized publicly for accepting such a conservative proposal. And even though I thought it was better than the status quo, a little bit of progress, that’s not what others saw. So I asked myself, under what conditions one can compromise, so that it’s not selling out your values completely, but also achieving something politically. And I think there are two factors that are very important in my thinking: 1) can it move a bit closer to the final end? Is there any progress? 2) if there is a compromise agreed, can we now have a better working relationship that facilitates further development and negotiation on the issue? If I didn’t sabotage their agenda, if I was acting in good faith and defended the proposal publicly even though it wasn’t satisfactory to me, then maybe there’s some hope that after this round they’ll trust me and we can move things a bit more. I thought at the time that these two conditions had obtained. But of course, compromise is always a tricky business—if they have much more power, then they could still just disregard my good faith cooperation with them if I try to push for more next time.
Something similar happened in pro-democracy protests of 2014, when I was a middleman between the government and the student protestors at the height of the occupation. I tried to get both sides to agree on a compromise where neither would get fully what they wanted, but at least if there was some kind of intermediate agreement, that could be a good foundation for further talks. And this would be a significant and historical achievement for the protestors, to get an undemocratic government that represented Beijing to open up talks with them. I thought the student leaders could ask the protestors to retreat from the streets and come back again in a different relationship with the government for further negotiations, perhaps in closed door settings, etc. So that was my hope, but the students didn’t see it that way. They weren’t happy with what the government offered on the table, and they didn’t want another round of discussion. And the occupation dragged on, eventually ending in exhaustion and crackdowns.
So if you ask me now, I’m not a politician, I don’t have followers. I’m not a charismatic leader. I can’t sway tens of thousands of people on the streets. I saw myself as a go-between, because as a moderate, I could see that each side has their legitimate concerns, ones that I couldn’t fully dismiss. As an intellectual who stands on his or her own, that’s the role I could play. But if you want to go further than being a middleman, if you want to single-handedly make an impact, you have to be fully involved and become a real politician.
SYC: Right. You keep mentioning that you’re a moderate, and that’s definitely true of most of your public and academic career, but since the 2019 protests, you’ve now started working on the ethics of violence. And many people have said to me, wow, even Joseph is becoming radicalized! So I wanted to ask whether you agree with this characterization, first of all, and more importantly, how recent developments in Hong Kong have shaped your philosophical views.
JC: I would still describe myself as a moderate. Being a moderate doesn’t mean that I’m against the use of violence as a matter of principle. Because I believe in the possibility of revolution. If a regime is so unjust that a revolution is called for, I would not object to it simply because it involves the use of violence. No one should categorically reject violence as a matter of principle, irrespective of the circumstances in which it arises. The use of violence in individual self-defense is often morally permissible. So being a moderate doesn’t mean you have no position to defend. When even your moderate values are under attack, you’ve got to stand up and defend them. At times you may have to engage in politics, and protest, and when your fundamental liberties are being infringed, that may call for more radical action.
But these aren’t things that I had thought through before 2019. I always wanted to push for democratization through peaceful means. So I wasn’t prepared intellectually or psychologically for violence, although philosophically I’m open to it. And then when 2019 came up, initially the movement was very peaceful, but after the police took extremely harsh and violent action against the peaceful protestors, using rubber bullets and beating people indiscriminately, everything changed. The clashes became more and more bloody, with disproportionate use of force from the police, and sometimes also from the protestors.
As a political philosopher, I couldn’t evade the question of the ethics of violence. Obviously the violence from the police was easily condemnable, but what about violence from the protestors? I had to think about it. And I think my position is, again, a moderate one: neither categorically rejecting violence nor endorsing it. Unlike the conservatives, who think that violence is illegal and can never be done, I disagree with that. And unlike the radicals who say that the regime is so unjust that we should do whatever we can, and there are no moral limits to what we can do, I also disagree with that. So I’m still trying to steer a moderate position in between. I’m not a pacificist, and I’m not a militant either.
Unfortunately, in thinking about these questions I didn’t get much from the Chinese Confucian tradition. There’s nothing helpful, and there’s a separate question here of why traditional Confucian philosophers didn’t theorize about violent protests, even though there were plenty protests throughout Chinese history, especially in the Ming dynasty all the way up to the Qing dynasty. So instead I went to the analytic Western tradition for help, and I found just war theory and theories of individual self-defense the most useful.
SYC: Final question: in embarking on this new project, who do you see yourself writing for?
JC: First and foremost, myself. My first responsibility is to know what I think about these questions and so if people ask me, at least I have something sensible to say. And once I’ve done that, if I think what I’ve got to say is of some value to others, then I will try to share it. When I was in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, I gave some talks on violent protests in university campuses during the protests. The talks were reported by journalists and also disseminated through podcasts and the radio. And it did have a little bit of impact. Some people said their views about the protests changed after listening to my arguments.
As for the guiding action on the ground, it’s difficult for philosophers to develop very precise guidelines for political action, because at the end of the day action requires contextual judgement as events are unfolding and situations are so fluid. One just can’t theorize or reason on the spot. So the most a political philosopher like me could hope to do is this: before going into a protest, if someone has heard my public talks or read my articles and thought about important principles regarding the use of violence, like proportionality, for example, then maybe when they’re engaged in the heat of things, those principles might influence how far they go. Like if a police officer is using disproportionate force to arrest you and beat you up, you might try to use violence to evade arrest and protect yourself, but if the officer is already disarmed and down on the ground, should you still keep beating them?
But perhaps an even more important thing is someone’s character and virtue. Having normative guidelines are one thing, but virtue is another. In the heat of the moment, do you have the strength of character and virtue to exercise restraint from excessive violence? This is very hard. And this is maybe what Confucianism can contribute to an ethics of protest.
Joseph Chan was Global Scholar and Visiting Professor at the University Center for Human Values of Princeton University between 2019-2021. His research interests span Confucian political philosophy, comparative political theory, democratic theory, social and political equality, and popular sovereignty. He is the author of Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton, 2014) and co-edited with Melissa Williams and Doh Shin East Asian Perspectives on Political Legitimacy: Bridging the Empirical-Normative Divide (Cambridge, 2016). He has been published in numerous journals, and in recent years he has begun a project on the ethics of violence and protest.