21st century democracy: blurring the lines

Apr 7, 2021
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President Biden, at his first press conference, said this:

“Look, I predict to you, your children and grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake, not just with China”.

Coming from the “leader of the free world” that is worrying. Humanity is not made up in that binary way: one or zero, black or white, autocracy or democracy. His statement represents a reductionist view of the world; it denies the grandeur of the human condition, with all its diversity and boundless imagination.

There are many models of democracy in the world; some are more successful than others. If democracy is to be defined as a community where government exercises power with the consent of the governed, then China is very much a democracy. An overwhelming majority of people in the Mainland today supports the government under the leadership of the Communist Party.

A “democracy” is not made up simply of a government model. Partly it is a question of how power is exercised.

Some say that the “Westminster model” defines democracy: a system where the leader of the party winning the most seats at an election is appointed Prime Minister and forms the government; and the government, with the slimmest of majority, can then dictate the policies for the ensuing years.

It can yield grotesque results.

In Britain, some years ago, “Brexit” was an existential issue: whether to remain in the European Union or to exit.  The government put that to a popular vote, in the form of a referendum: yes or no. There was no room for compromise. In the course of the campaigning, the people were not told the implications of the decision either way: the leaders themselves had no idea. The complexity of the issue was reduced to a few slogans: “Regain Control”, “ Strength in Unity” etc. And the result? 51.9 % voted for exit and the government acted in accordance with that “mandate”, over the objections of  48.1 % who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. Over 2 million people then signed a petition for a second referendum, to no avail.

At a personal level, no one would ever make an important decision in that way; nor at the corporate level for that matter. One would make inquiries, conduct “due diligence”, find out its cost, its implications, its long-term effect.

But when it comes to a collective decision in a national democratic setting, the process is reduced to sound bites and slogans.

“Make America Great Again”. What does that mean?  Yet it motivated millions to vote for Donald Trump as President of the USA.

“Stop the Steal”, and it sent hundreds to smash their way into that sacred sanctum of Western democracy, the US Congress on Capitol Hill.

We live in an age when a person is defined by his or her label or “identity”. You are either “yellow” or “blue”, “pro-democrat” or “pro-Beijing”. You can’t be both.

Stephen Vines is a veteran Hong Kong journalist and has many admirers. But he is out of focus when, in a recent interview with Hong Kong Free Press, he said in relation to the Sino-British Joint Declaration:

“China was promising something that no dictatorship has ever promised in history: that part of its territory will be governed in a way that was significantly different from a dictatorship”. 

The word “dictatorship” carries heavy implications. There are many places on earth that fit that term. But is China one of them?

What “dictatorship” in the world would have promulgated a constitution for a region within its own territory that guaranteed the exercise of fundamental human rights (including press freedom and the freedom of privacy and communication) and all the rights and freedoms set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? These are all provided for in Chapter III of the Basic Law for Hong Kong.

Stephen Vines is also wrong when he said that the Joint Declaration “introduced the One Country Two Systems framework”.  This is an echo of the warped perspective of the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

The One Country Two Systems framework was not the product of negotiation between the two sovereign powers. It was a fundamental policy of the Central Government, made public long before the negotiations between the two parties began, together with the equally fundamental policy of national integrity. These matters were not negotiable. Anyone with the least sense of history would have seen this.

What is clear beyond doubt is that, from the outset, Beijing valued regional diversity within its overall socialist system, under the leadership of the Communist Party. It is a world view much wider than that of Dominic Raab or, for that matter, that of President Joe Biden. It is founded on the proposition that unity can coexist with diversity. It can even be said to be the highest form of human governance.

Nature itself is expressed in this way. Biodiversity is the very essence of life on earth. At the deepest level, all life on earth is one. On the surface, there is a huge contrast between a human being and a fruit fly: yet we share something like 40% of our DNA.

A brilliant Australian commentator, Henry Ergas, recently said this:

“Our culture has always rested on twin pillars: the ineradicable fact of human diversity, and the equally ineradicable fact of human commonality, which binds diversity into what used to be referred to as the family of man”.

There is nothing contradictory in Hong Kong enjoying a free and liberal lifestyle and, at the same time, honouring national integrity under a democratic model devised by Beijing, considered suitable to its circumstances.

On 29 March 2021, the Standing Committee of the NPC published amendments to Annexes I and II of the Basic Law, introducing sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. These were to ensure that, never again, would Hong Kong suffer a breakdown of its legislative process as happened in the last few years.

These reforms immediately provoked the following response from Dominic Raab, the British foreign Secretary:

“This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself ……This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations as a leading member of the international community”.

Doubtless, there will be similar fulminations from other Western leaders.  It might be salutary to recall what the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on March 4th :

“When democracies are weak …. they become more vulnerable to extremist movements from the inside and to interference from the outside”.

People around the world are now witnessing the fragility of American democracy. So many democratic institutions have been destroyed or weakened during the four years of Trump’s presidency.  Some are wondering if, in the long run, democracy in America can survive; whether autocracy would have the upper hand in restoring harmony to that fractured community, as happened in Germany in the mid-1930s.

If the US Secretary of State should follow his own logic, he would realize that he is in no position to criticize China for the recent reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system.

They are clearly aimed at strengthening Hong Kong’s legislature in the long run. In that sense, it is a step in defence of “democracy” or “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”. That aim might or might not succeed. Only time could tell. But the effort should not be decried.

A respectful attitude between nations prohibits mutual criticism, as every nation has vulnerability in its so-called democratic model. There is no perfect template for “democracy”.

Perhaps the last word should be left to the 19th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle:

“For forms of government let fools contest;

   Whatever governs best is best. “

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