Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Pondering Democracy in Hong Kong

From The Diplomat today comes an article on "The Battle for the Soul of Hong Kong." Though dramatic, it's not too hyperbolic, because it truly is a question of self-determination or allowing outside powers to dictate the fate of one's own society. As I was reading the piece and its characterization of the different actors, questions about the motivation(s) of the Hong Kong government and rationales for/against democracy piqued my interest.

The government can choose a moderate path with an eye on a sustainable outcome by respecting public opinion for greater rights and participation; or it can ram through its own decision, at the behest of Beijing, and continue a policy of slowly suffocating Hong Kong and its people's aspirations. It's just too bad the government won't pay attention to what the citizens want, and will likely insist on its own approach.

Doesn't it kind of sound like terrible Asian parenting? Where the father insists that he knows what's best, and the kids need to be quiet and obey? Where the mother won't even listen when the kids try to explain why the decision being forced on them isn't necessarily the right one? Where the parents don't even bother explaining or give patronizing answers that are more like self-fulfilling prophecies?
And now I'm getting angry ... but more on this visceral reaction later.

A leader of Hong Kong who stands for the people would be regarded as a popular hero. S/he would go down in the history books as the woman or man who stood up to Beijing.
We'll see if anybody has the guts. It's like Yanukovych in Ukraine: he had the opportunity to be the visionary leader who transcended his Moscow-oriented instincts and brought Ukraine fully into Europe, according to the popular will. Instead, he kow-towed to Putin, resulting in massive unrest and democratic protest (unfortunately followed by civil conflict goaded by Russia).

By the way, if you say, "Hong Kong people aren't _____ enough to elect their own leaders" you should probably check with the HK students at your nearest British or American university and see if they're _____ enough. Otherwise, you are in effect denying your peers the very rights you have as an American. Just try telling them that to their face.

In this day and age, there's a growing consensus that democracy and universal suffrage are the only legitimate means for governments to be empowered. (I'm pretty sure in the aftermath of any multilateral intervention, the UN would have to set a timetable for democratic elections. International missions would simply not be able to authorize dictatorship. The resistance from governments across the world would be fierce on purely normative grounds; even dictatorships have to pay lip service to democracy.)

Even if we're being pragmatic about the chances of success for democracy and only wish to selectively apply it in societies "ready" for it to take root, Hong Kong is not even a marginal case. It's highly-developed, well-educated, has extensive experience with rule of law and civil liberties, features amazing infrastructure and municipal services; enjoys a strong court system and an active counter-corruption agency; and is internationally oriented. The warning klaxon goes off: if not here, then where? If not at this level of development, then when? It should have a functional government and, one would suspect, a relatively orderly democracy.

In these situations, there wouldn't be chaos or violence unless the authorities force things to the extreme—when they undercut the moderates by refusing to listen or negotiate, when radicalization is the only outlet left. Why would you go down that road when you could have a smart, safe landing through measured, effective liberalization with hope at the end of the road? That is, unless you think suppression is a long-term solution, and democratic aspirations can be regularly tamped down, bought out and co-opted, or eliminated. In that rather cynical future, the government doesn't just believe it can manage the demand for political participation, but has convinced (deluded?) itself into thinking it can fundamentally alter norms and construct a mindset where public voice no longer manifests, and where democratic values no longer matter.

At the local level, at least, participation matters. It increases patience and buy-in. How much more important for that to happen at the national level, where broad social consensus is even more important to weave identity and hold a polity together.

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