(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal  on 3 December 2014.)


The political ideas of liberal democracy and populist democracy were born in the Enlightenment Age (or Age of Reason). They differ primarily in their conception of liberty. In a liberal democracy, liberty is conceived as the freedom of an individual from being constrained in his activities, especially by government. The great liberal intellectual Isaiah Berlin calls it “negative liberty” and views it primarily as a natural human right every individual is born with. Government in a liberal democracy is given limited powers so as to protect individual rights from being unfairly harmed or interfered with by other individuals.


In a populist democracy, liberty is to purposely realize the “general will.” It is the pursuit of a collective destiny through participation in democratic political processes, for example, a mass political movement, a referendum, or popular elections. It is called “positive liberty” because of the shared common experience and pursuit of a common goal. The collective will of autonomous individuals acting together liberate both society and the individual. Liberty is the attainment of dignity as a human being.


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 are general reasons that can be applied to all nations and communities, the rest are unique to the Hong Kong situation.


Three Universal Reasons


The first reason is a matter of beliefs. The idea that there is a “general will” of the people presumes that all individuals in a community share a common set of beliefs about their own condition and interests. This may be occasionally true when the people watch the Olympics to cheer their national team. Or when a common enemy threatens the entire nation so that everyone takes up arms in defense.


But aside from these fleeting moments, 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. And even in those fleeting moments when the nation rallies together, there will be traitors, pacifists, independent minded individuals, and dissident ideas.


The idea that humans have by nature common beliefs that make them human is associated with Immanuel Kant, a highly influential German Enlightenment philosopher. Kant sought to replace the dignity of God with the dignity of man, and in so doing undid theology.


In France and Germany, the Enlightenment was almost synonymous with the rejection of religion. By contrast, many of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers that laid the conceptual foundations for liberal democracy were highly respected figures in the church, combining a commitment to the Christian religion with serious engagement in the newest intellectual inquiries. Their ideas directly influenced James Madison, the most important architect of the U.S. Constitution.


It is small wonder that the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, well known for his quote: “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was a great admirer of the Scottish philosophers, saying once: “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”


The second reason is fear of the historical record. Berlin, in reflecting on the human consequences of populist democracy, came to see ideas of “positive liberty” as the roots of tyranny.


He wrote towards the end of his life in 1994 that the horrors of the 20th Century had been caused by revolutionary ideologies and movements: “If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, 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. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used — if necessary, terror, slaughter.”


Berlin counsels: “So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march — it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood — eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”


The third reason is a matter of logical analysis. Professor William Riker has argued that the populist conception of democracy requires the democratic process to discover the “general will.” Public consultations, popular elections and referenda are seen as democratic political processes for discovering the “general will.” The outcomes of these processes are therefore the precious embodiment of collective will. If the “general will” cannot be uniquely discovered, then society cannot know what is its collective choice.


Riker shows that according to the “theory of social choice” developed by Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow, it is not possible to find an unambiguous answer of what society wants when there are more than two choices. If the choices are A, B, and C, “preference cycles” occur when A is ranked higher than B, B higher than C, and C higher than A. Society’s preferences are schizophrenically inconsistent, and it is logically impossible to say what is the common will of the people.


If social preferences cannot be unambiguously known, then populist democracy becomes impossible to attain. Political outcomes achieved through democratic means are no longer the precious embodiment of the “general will.” They can only be the outcomes of successful political manipulation or accidents of history and circumstances.


Hurdles Against Populism


The fourth reason is that one cannot have competing popular wills co-existing in one nation. The popular will of the people is a sovereign statement. China’s political culture is populist and its governing ideology is a sovereign statement. But if Hong Kong articulates a popular will, it inevitably becomes a competing statement with sovereign pretensions. Nativism, if it ever fully blooms into nationhood, leads inevitably to separatism.


China, as a populist sovereign, will not tolerate such a competing statement from a Special Administrative Region. Even a referendum can be deemed to have sovereign pretensions. Chinese concerns about Hong Kong having sovereign pretensions are clearly spelt out in the requirement to enact an anti-sedition law – Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. 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, are there to protect “negative liberty.” This makes it more natural to aim for a liberal democracy. The fact that legislative councilors are prohibited from proposing private bills with budgetary implications makes it largely futile to pursue mass-based, bottom-up political participation and mobilization efforts to implement the “general will”. There are too many hurdles to building populist democracy.


The sixth reason is the difficulty of preventing fragmentation 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 more division among the rank and file within political parties as they grow. The propensity to split off to form new parties increases as the career paths of the young are frustrated and unending differences arise over political strategy. Without broad-based political parties, populist political movements turn radical, anarchistic, fragmented and fringe. They end up alienating the majority of the population, and are eventually unsuccessful.


The seventh reason is that Hong Kong has a very diverse population and is a highly pluralistic society. This is a community where individual freedoms have been well protected so everyone can pursue the kind of life they choose. The young people in Hong Kong are autonomous, creative, independent, educated, and dedicated to their own ideals, but not all are enamored by politics even though they are committed to democratic ideals and a democratic way of life.


This is a far cry from the huddled industrial masses of the previous two centuries and the impoverished agrarian masses of the pre-industrial era. Populist democracy has limited appeal except among alienated radicals. Still, frustration with the lack of democratic progress will feed alienation and radicalization among the restless in society.


The eighth reason is the inherent conflicts in the role of the Chief Executive. Should he be representing Beijing or the people of Hong Kong? These conflicts are less sharp under a liberal democracy than a populist democracy. The latter makes the Chief Executive the representative of the “general will” of the Hong Kong people. This inevitably pits him in direct confrontation with Beijing. Under a liberal democracy, he is merely an official serving on limited tenure and with restricted powers. The only requirement is that he has to 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.


Democracies in the West and in Japan have been built on a model of electoral competition among political parties to capture state power under the rule of law with political accountability. This model worked reasonably well in the past, but in recent decades their governments have suffered from political gridlock. When government becomes progressively more accountable to well-organized minorities, governance becomes increasingly unaccountable.


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.




Isaiah Berlin, “A Message to the 21st Century,” An Honorary Doctorate Lecture Delivered Before the University of Toronto on 5 November 1994, The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, 2014.


Building Blocks for a Narrative on Hong Kong’s Democratic Political Development (Part VIII)

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