(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 3 December 2014.) Liberal democracy and populist democracy differ primarily in their conception of liberty. In a liberal democracy, liberty is freedom from constraint in one’s activities, especially constraint by government. In a populist democracy, liberty is the realization of the “general will” through participation in democratic political processes. As the student-led Occupy Central pro-democracy protests continue to reverberate around Hong Kong, it is worth analysing the brand of democracy that would best suit the city. In my view, there are nine reasons why Hong Kong should not embrace populist democratic ideas. Three of them can apply to all nations and communities, the rest are unique to Hong Kong. The first reason is a matter of beliefs. The idea that there is a “general will” of the people presumes everyone in a community shares a common set of beliefs about their own condition and interests. But people do not have common beliefs under normal circumstances. The enormous diversity of beliefs we observe everywhere is a general and permanent condition of all societies and certainly of modern pluralistic ones. The second reason is fear of the historical record. The great liberal intellectual, Isaiah Berlin, reflected that the “positive liberty” underpinning populist democracy was the root of 20th century tyranny. “If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems…then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.” Persuasion, restrictive laws, coercion, violence and even terror and slaughter can follow. The third reason is a matter of logical analysis. The theory of social choice has demonstrated that a community cannot avoid making schizophrenic choices, i.e., A is ranked higher than B, B higher than C, and C higher than A. So the “general will” cannot be unambiguously known. Populist democracy becomes impossible to attain. The fourth reason is that one cannot have competing popular wills co-existing in one nation. China’s political culture is populist and its governing ideology is a sovereign statement. This means it will not tolerate a competing statement with sovereign pretensions from a Special Administrative Region. Chinese concerns are clearly spelt out in the requirement to enact Article 23. Only the “negative liberties” of a liberal democracy can hope to be accommodated under Chinese sovereignty. The fifth reason is that Hong Kong’s inherited institutions, for example, rule of law, freedom of the press, low tax rates, free markets and strong civil society, embody liberal democracy’s goal of protecting freedom from unnecessary constraint. The fact that legislators are prohibited from proposing private bills with budgetary implications makes it largely futile to implement the “general will”. There are too many hurdles to building populist democracy. The sixth reason is the fragmentation that arises when building broad-based political parties and coalitions in Hong Kong. The Basic Law demands an executive-led government. This limits the ability of political parties to capture power, leading to division among the rank and file. Without broad-based political parties, populist political movements turn radical, alienating the majority of the population. The seventh reason is that Hong Kong is a highly pluralistic society. Individual freedoms have been well protected so everyone can pursue the kind of life they choose. Still, frustration with the lack of democratic progress will feed alienation and radicalization among the restless in society. The eighth reason is the inherent conflict in the role of the Chief Executive. Should he represent Beijing or the people of Hong Kong? This conflict is more pronounced in a populist democracy because the Chief Executive has to represent the “general will” of the Hong Kong people, which pits him against Beijing. Under a liberal democracy, he is merely an official serving on limited tenure and with restricted powers. The only requirement is that he please both masters or risk being dismissed by either one. The ninth reason is that introducing a successful model for democratic reforms in Hong Kong can have relevance for China’s own attempts at reforming its political institutions. The democratic models of the West and Japan now suffer from political gridlock and a tyranny of the minorities. Can Hong Kong find a way for its executive-led government to introduce greater representation, broad-based accountability, and legitimation within the framework of the Basic Law? If so, it will have important lessons to offer for China, and perhaps the rest of the world. We may not possess a lot of wisdom on how to achieve this goal, but we have no choice but to try under the circumstances. Hopefully, innovation will be born out of necessity.
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