(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 26 November 2014)
It may be too early to predict political life after the Occupy movement ends. Commentators have mentioned further political tightening by Beijing, urgent attempts to address society’s deep contradictions, political gridlock, and further polarization of the community that could lead to a rise in populism.
These are salient concerns. The future of democracy in our city may well hang in the balance, but will it follow the path of a liberal democracy or a populist democracy?
These two approaches provide different interpretations of the purpose and consequence of voting and elections.
The starting point for liberal democracy is “negative” liberty, which means the absence of coercion or interference by others, especially government, in one’s activities.
The liberal fear is that the government can easily deploy force against citizens to make them support unpopular policies. The liberal hope is that officials will be restrained from such behavior out of fear of losing the next election. The defense of liberty lies in the discipline of elections.
Liberal democracy requires, firstly, a popular vote to ensure participation and equality and secondly, an election with limited tenure. It makes no claims about the quality of the candidates. The function of voting is to control officials, and no more.
A major challenge for liberal democracy is how to blunt majority rule so as to protect individual liberty and minority interests. The solution is to surround voting and elections with numerous restricting institutions, such as independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press and election rules, to curb government powers.
Populist democracy, on the other hand, embraces “positive” liberty, which is the exercise of control over one’s life and destiny. A society is considered free when all its members play an active role in controlling its life and destiny through participation in democratic processes.
Populist democracy presumes every citizen shares a common view of the good and the right thing to do, and that there are no irresolvable personal concerns. The “general will” of society is discovered by consulting citizens and tallying their common interests.
The referendum is the ultimate instrument for discovering the “general will”. The Occupy movement made extensive use of public consultations and an unofficial referendum to reveal the public’s will.
The populist ideal requires elected governments to move swiftly to embody in law the winning election platform. Constitutional constraints and due processes, as seen in liberal democracy, are deemed intolerable because they retard the popular mandate.
But with the constraints removed, it becomes easy to change electoral arrangements. For this reason, populist democracies may revert to autocracies. Fascist Germany is an example.
Liberal and populist democracies also treat government output differently. The populist sees it as an expression of the general will, the liberal sees it as no more than the decree of legislators or judges, accepted by citizens.
Liberal democracy is non-judgmental and respects the plurality of individual values and desires. The only purpose for which state power can be rightfully exercised over an individual is to prevent harm to others.
However, it does have a psychological weakness. Since negative liberty is about not having constraints, individuals can increase their freedom by relinquishing desires that are likely to be frustrated, and cease to aspire to higher goals. For example, slaves who are treated well may cease to wish to be free.
Proponents of populist democracy, on the other hand, say you cannot increase your freedom just by shrinking your desires. Freedom involves being your own master, rather than letting someone or something else control you.
Many of these ideas were delineated by Isaiah Berlin, who worried the ideal of positive liberty might impel revolutionary movements to become totalitarian because they are only willing to tolerate their own conception of what is good and right. By contrast, negative liberty sits comfortably with pluralistic values.
Which path will Hong Kong go down? Liberal democracy seemed possible in 1997 but the Occupy movement has tilted the pendulum towards populism.
The road to democracy is likely to be gradual and hesitant, vacillating between these two ideals. But the vast diversity of values and interests among Hong Kong people can only be accommodated by a liberal system.
Still, populism will have its appeal in a society divided between haves and have-nots, where dreams and destinies are at loggerheads and the people desperately want to hear an uplifting narrative to lift them above the political mess and life’s banalities.