For about a decade, Chinese Communist Party officials and scholars regularly visited Chan Kin-man, an expert on civil society in China and advocate of democracy in Hong Kong, for advice on this former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
"I told them, 60 percent of people want democracy in Hong Kong; 80 percent of young people want democracy. The tide is coming in. There is something coming," said Mr. Chan, sitting amid towering bookshelves and desks overflowing with papers in his office at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a lushly green campus near the border that separates Hong Kong and the Communist-run Chinese mainland.
"I told them why Hong Kong needs democracy, and how there was no evidence that the pro-democracy camps are controlled by the British and United States governments," he said, a nod to suspicions he faces today from Beijing that he and others are attempting a democratic "color revolution" in Hong Kong.
About four weeks ago, the visitors brought "a very clear signal," said Mr. Chan, gesturing at two green-upholstered, rococo-style armchairs where he said they sat. "They came here to advise me not to support Occupy Central."
Occupy Central is a civil disobedience campaign he heads along with two other men (another professor and a Christian minister) to push for universal suffrage to choose the city's leader in elections due in 2017. Hong Kong's leader is now selected by an elite committee of about 1,200 people, many of them tycoons and others that Beijing considers friendly. "Occupy Central with Love and Peace," to use the movement's entire name, plans to organize thousands of people to occupy the Central district of Hong Kong or another part of the city, probably in July next year. Mr. Chan says he believes he could go to jail for staging such a major obstruction of the business heart of the city.
Are they launching a color revolution?
"Of course not. We don't want to overthrow the government. We just want a democratic system in Hong Kong. We are not interested in ending Communist rule in China," he said. "To me, Hong Kong is mature enough to have democracy. But in China we need to build a civil society first," said Mr. Chan.
Hong Kong, once broadly derided as an apolitical, money-obsessed "cultural desert," is today riven with political passions as the forces for and against democracy seem headed for collision -- sparked, ironically, by Beijing's own promises to introduce universal suffrage in 2017.
Positions are being staked out. At political rallies tempers have flared and small-scale street brawls have broken out, incidents that some commentators have likened to the thuggery that accompanied the Nazis' rise to power in Germany. The democracy camp says people sent by the powerful local triads have begun attacking demonstrators in an effort to support the unpopular administration of Hong Kong's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who is widely seen as unwilling to push for greater democracy.
Mr. Chan believes the triads are involved. "Yes. For sure," he said. "I have checked with friends who know."
Democracy for Hong Kong, he said, is his "vocation." But the struggle is taking a toll.
Mainland universities and, recently, a major newspaper in the southern province of Guangdong have withdrawn speaking invitations, the newspaper citing an "act of God." This, Mr. Chan said, refers to political pressure that cannot be withstood. He has resigned as director of his university's Chinese studies center and will soon give up another post as director of its Center for Civil Society Studies, he said.
"The university didn't give me any pressure," he said. "They want me to stay. But I knew it wasn't for the benefit of the centers." If he remained director, he feared, fellow academics and students would be frozen out of research activities in China.
The man who long prided himself on his moderation has become a persona non grata in most of his own country.
Why do it? Hong Kong, a sophisticated city, is becoming ungovernable, he said. Frustrations run high; people are unable to vote for representatives who can actually make policy and reflect their demands -- the legislature is partly chosen by direct election, but partly through professions-based constituencies, and lacks real power. Issues like land use, housing, education and the environment are pressing, but power is concentrated in the person of the chief executive, who is chosen by the election committee with the tacit approval of Beijing and therefore is not seen as representative, he said.
Beijing is interested in good governance in Hong Kong and in preserving stability, said Mr. Chan, but he doesn't believe it will allow its leaders to be elected by the public at large, whatever its promises.
"I am very pessimistic that they will give Hong Kong universal suffrage in 2017 unless we do something, such as Occupy Central," he said.
So the true puzzle is perhaps this: Firmly opposed to democracy at home, why did Beijing excite these expectations in Hong Kong? Article 45 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution adopted in 1997, says the "ultimate aim" is to choose a chief executive "by universal suffrage." In 2007, the National People's Congress announced the chief executive "may" be chosen by universal suffrage in 2017, and Hong Kong legislature "may" be fully directly elected in 2020.
From years of meeting with officials, Mr. Chan believes Beijing's bureaucrats, who think in terms of quotas and plans, estimated China would be economically developed enough around 2020 to consider greater democracy there, too.
"They believed that by 2020 China would be a 'xiaokang shehui"' -- a moderately prosperous society, said Mr. Chan. "And then we can talk political reform in China, too."
"They treat 2017 as a starting point. But to us, it's an end point," he said. "Free speech, an independent judiciary, a free press, for China, I can wait. But in Hong Kong we are in deep trouble if we wait."
"So to me, they should take the first step" and grant the democracy many here crave, he said. "It's very bold, yes. They have to get used to that. To two political parties in China!"
As I left, he called out: "Visit me in jail!"world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.