(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 17 December 2014.)
The Occupy Movement wants genuine democracy. Its supporters denounce Hong Kong’s political arrangements as a false system of “one person one vote” because the people do not possess equal political rights to nominate candidates for the Chief Executive and vote for Legislative Council candidates in the functional constituencies.
I don’t think these institutions have to be abolished. They can be reformed and opened up to greater political representation to become genuinely democratic without contravening the Basic Law. How this can be accomplished can be discussed and debated.
The Occupy Movement makes two accusations against Hong Kong’s political arrangements. Their first is a moral indictment of these arrangements. Governing society becomes more difficult without a morally acceptable form of “one person one vote” – an aspiration promised in the Basic Law. If governability cannot be restored after a protracted period, institutional decay will set in.
The second accusation is a protest against social injustice. The movement claims ruling elites have dominated the unrepresentative government establishment. Society has become less inclusive over time, justice has been subverted, and economic progress has degenerated into a closed extractive rather than open competitive system. Even if these charges are exaggerated at the moment, the potential risks should not be lightly dismissed.
The demand for genuine democracy therefore is seen to have both moral and practical relevance. Political reform that leads to a genuine system of “person one vote” can address the moral accusation, but will it solve the complexities of social injustice? What kind of democracy will be able to perform the latter task?
Genuine Democracy and the Protection of Minority Interests
The earliest examples of modern democracy first appeared in England, the United States, and France. The English version evolved step by step over several centuries to progressively limit the arbitrary powers of the monarchy through constitutional restraints that shifted the political balance initially in favor of the landed nobles and later the ordinary people. The landed nobles were the first to be empowered, subsequently all men, and eventually all women.
At a high level of conceptualization, democratization is a process of transferring political power from a small number of ruling elites to the people through “one person one vote,” of shifting from minority rule to majority rule.. It is not difficult to imagine why such a process can easily turn violent. In France Robespierre passed a decree to cut off King Louis XVI’s head. During the Russian Revolution Tsar Nicholas II was executed.
Violence is minimized when an agreement is struck between the majority and the minority whereby the majority agree to respect and protect the interests of the minority. England and the United States took the path of accommodation and minimized violence. In France, the land of the nobles was forcibly divided up and given to the peasants. A century of political instability ensued with three periods of republican rule and two periods of monarchical restoration.
Conceptually, one can think of the large array of democratic institutions that surround voting and elections, for example, constitutional constraints, rule of law, separation of powers, multi-cameralism, independence of the judiciary, political accountability, freedom of the press, election rules (especially the method of proportional representation), limited tenure and regular elections, filibuster rules, and other arrangements, that are designed to limit the coercive powers of the majority achieved through “one person one vote.”
These democratic institutions were introduced in the old political democracies to protect the interests of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. The actual institutional arrangements naturally varied from place to place, reflecting local conditions and historical circumstances.
Fear of Majority Rule becomes the Tyranny of Minorities
Modern day democracies face new challenges: economic progress and social and cultural pluralism have created a highly diverse society of special and often narrow interests. Their growing dominance has produced a devastating influence on the democratic political process. This has happened in almost every developed nation.
Crony capitalism is only one of the many manifestations of the progress and pluralism of modern societies, where business elites wield powerful influence over government. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the most harmful compared to other powerful narrow special interests, such as the tiny agricultural lobbies in rich countries that have derailed the multilateral free trade agenda of the World Trade Organization.
In Hong Kong, fewer than 2,000 rural squatter households were able to stall development in the northeast New Territories. The difficulty of getting a landfill project off the ground in Tseung Kwan O is another example. Redeveloping parts of the Country Park in land-strapped Hong Kong is still another example.
These cases demonstrate that the institutions created in the past are incapable of resolving contemporary conflicts.
They also signal that organized minorities have increasingly subverted those democratic institutions that originally were designed to curb the powers of the majority. The balance of power has been reversed. The tyranny of organized minorities is upon us. Democracy today needs new institutions not to prevent the tyranny of the majority, but to protect us from the tyranny of the minorities.
Hong Kong is a rich, pluralistic, industrialized city full of narrow special interests. It has one of the highest levels of economic and civil freedoms in the world. What kind of workable democratic system should Hong Kong experiment with? This is a difficult question because there are no ready solutions. The important point is that many people in different parts of the world are trying to solve this problem.
What steps should Hong Kong take next in political reform? Should we “pocket it first” so that the Chief Executive will be elected by universal suffrage even though the Nominating Committee is unrepresentative and dominated by Beijing’s influence? Or should we hold out in the distant hope of gaining more concessions?
Will Beijing Unite with the Ruling Minority?
The Occupy Movement is also a protest against social injustice. The protesters are concerned about deepening economic and social contradictions in society that they believe are perpetuated by the current political arrangement, even if not caused by it.
This narrative is gaining support because the public is frustrated that Hong Kong’s economic and social contradictions have not been addressed. The longer this continues, the more people will believe the government does not want to solve them in order to protect the interests of the ruling elites.
The Chief Executive Selection Committee and the Functional Constituencies in the Legislative Council are seen as the bastions of these elites, and they are the targets of the Occupy Movement. The reluctance to open up the present political system is perceived by the public as a sign of the cronyism between Beijing and the ruling elites. Increasingly, Beijing is being blamed for supporting these elites by preventing genuine democracy in Hong Kong.
The emergence of radical elements among the pan-democrats reflects not only the lack of progress in political reforms, but also the result of a poorly designed set of election rules using proportional representation that ends up protecting small extreme minorities. These radical elements have taken their struggle to the streets with greater use of violence.
After 75 days of occupying the streets, the underlying causes of the confrontation have not been resolved. Fortunately, both sides have showed some restraint and backed away from falling off a cliff. But without political reforms, the events of the past 75 days are likely to be the ominous sign of things to come. Society will continue to polarize as friends and relatives take sides and increasingly “dislike” each other in emotional and moral terms. When each side only seeks to prevail and impose its will through mobilizing support, the political middle ground will vanish.
Both sides reached out to the community only for political support. Democracy thus has turned populist. Every policy and program descends into an instrument of politics rather than a necessary public service. A restive public, impatient with the status quo, will find the false promises of demagogues appealing.
Unfortunately, populism will not only protect minority interests from the tyranny of the majority, but also encourage them. In a society with many minority interests, it is the winning coalition of minorities that tyrannizes. Society is merely lorded over by temporary and shifting coalitions of minorities pretending they represent the majority and cheering the persecution of its most disliked minority.
Who is the Villain?
A growing number of people agree political reform is necessary, but they differ on what should be done and who is the primary villain. The pan-democratic movement has to date adopted a strategy of building their voter support base by capitalizing on voter fears of Beijing’s arbitrary rule. Their case for genuine democracy is dissatisfaction with Beijing. This is a high-risk, opportunistic strategy and arguably very shortsighted. By antagonizing Beijing, the democratic movement risks being branded unpatriotic and forces its supporters into the unenviable position of choosing between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Building genuine democracy in Hong Kong requires a reconfiguration of access to local political power between the local ruling elites and the permanent residents of Hong Kong. There is no compelling reason why Beijing must side with the local ruling elites against the local permanent residents unless pressed to do so. If Beijing chooses to place itself in such a position, then it is politically extremely unwise given that the Basic Law has promised a democratic system of government for Hong Kong. Yet the local ruling elites are keen to encourage Beijing to assume such a role.
By the same logic, the pan-democratic strategy of hostility towards Beijing is foolish and opportunistic. Obsessed with near-term electoral success, they are taking democracy to a dead end. Political radicalization within the ranks of the pan-democrats promises more of the same and is even more motivated by electoral opportunism.
The pan-democrats are against the so-called “pocketing it first” proposition. They have openly pledged to veto the government’s political reform proposal after the second stage consultation. This is consistent with their strategy of hostility towards Beijing. There is also the fear that a Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage in 2017 may run roughshod over them with his larger acquired political mandate and moral legitimacy. Even the dreaded passing of Article 23 cannot be ruled out as a consequence. But where does all this eventually lead?
At present, Hong Kong does not have a working political system that can both successfully aggregate majority opinion and protect minority interests. Our self-serving divisiveness has produced a fragmented political landscape similar to those in the old democracies before genuine democracy was secured. Such divisiveness is unlikely to change before 2017. Without a Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage, it is unlikely to change even after 2017.
Faced with such a difficult dilemma, should Hong Kong accept “pocketing it first” as the next step on our road to genuine democracy? Or should we let all our institutions decay beyond repair? Can we not imagine a better path to the future conditional on credible promises of continuing political reforms to the Nominating Committee and the Legislative Council election in the near and immediate future?
These are the questions that the people of Hong Kong must ponder and decide in the coming year. Regardless of whether you support the Occupy Movement or are against it, we must decide together. Those charged with the responsibility of taking this decision forward must listen to the voice of the people and to their hearts. For both the establishment and the pan-democrats, this is not the time for political brinksmanship.
Building Blocks for a Narrative on Hong Kong’s Democratic Political Development (Part IX)