Shades of democracy

Henry C K Liu

This article appeared in AToL on July 16, 2003


On July 1, 2003, the sixth anniversary of establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) under Chinese sovereignty, half a million people marched peacefully in the center of Hong Kong, with pre-arranged police permission, to demonstrate against the autonomous SAR government.

The march was sparked by opposition to the proposed security law as stipulated by Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution. The march, expected to attract only about 30,000, was not spontaneous, having been professionally planned months in advance. It is not known why or how the Hong Kong government underestimated the size of the demonstration by such a wide margin, since demonstrations are required by law to seek prior police approval and the sponsor has to give police an estimate of the expected crowd for reasons of public order and safety. Had the British colonial government been still in charge, a march of this magnitude would not have been permitted and those who disobeyed would have been thrown in jail, as attested by British response to protest events during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. The question arises as to why the police did not turn away additional demonstrators after the crowd reached the pre-approved level. The former British-run Hong Kong police would have most certainly done that and not allowed 500,000 demonstrators to amass in one single location, peaceful or not.

The marchers were energized under the all-encompassing banner of demand for democracy. Yet many diverse groups participated, each representing a separate special interest. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post observed that dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and ineffective government response to it was a major factor behind the massive turnout.

Opposition to the proposed security law took many different forms. A small number wanted outright withdrawal of the proposed law; many others, accepting the need for a national-security law, merely wanted a postponement of legislative vote to allow more debate on the details; still others wanted various specific amendments important to their particular interests. Most argued not against the need for national-security legislation per se, but whether particular provisions were unnecessarily restrictive while not contributing to legitimate national-security needs. By some protesters, demands have been made that are inherently contradictory to one another. Still others entertain the delusion of toppling the SAR government with "people power", or even bring an end to communist rule in China.

It is clear that the elitist SAR government, in its inexperience in handling popular political dynamics, misjudged the public mood and mishandled the situation, allowing it to turn into an appearance of political crisis. It permitted diverse anti-government forces, each with a different grievance, to unite into one single demonstration of media consequence, highlighting disconnection between the government and the popular will.

Ironically, this is the result not of a government being indifferent to public sentiment, as the British colonial government historically had been, but the result of a permissive, indecisive and timid government with a high degree of autonomy from the central government. The public wanted stronger political leadership in addressing the economic problems the city has been facing since the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997, not less government. But the SAR government presents itself as a laissez-faire polity.

Hong Kong spends billions of dollars on overseas public relations through an army of high-priced lobbyists in key foreign capitals, but very little on communication with the local population on the grassroots level. It has failed to control even the government-owned television station enough to portray the government in a fair and respectful manner consistent with the Chinese cultural attitude toward authority. Over the past six years, the government has been quick to admit faults but slow to take control. It consistently implies that firm governance and strong leadership are not desirable characteristics of a government committed to free markets and democracy. It preaches the jungle laws of free market as an excuse for policy inaction. The chief executive (CE) earnestly consults all who have an opinion, and tries to accommodate all contradictory demands. The result has been policy paralysis while the economy dives. By trying to please all, the CE ends up pleasing few.

The CE views his key role as appeasing the US demand for open markets and introduction of US-style freedom and democracy in post-colonial Hong Kong, turning himself into a hands-off Herbert Hoover while the public cry out for an activist Franklin D Roosevelt. In dealing with pressure from overseas, the CE acts like an appeasing Neville Chamberlain rather than a defiant Harry Truman.

With the Wall Street Journal consistently assailing the SAR's mild industrial-policy measures as destruction of a free market that historically never existed, and the New York Times regularly harping on never-existent political freedom, the SAR government has been consumed with trying to project a facade of passive government as demanded by US neo-liberalism, while letting the general public bear the economic pain associated with such fantasy. Neo-liberal propaganda has orchestrated the public to blame its misfortune not on globalized market fundamentalism and US dollar hegemony, but on the political persona of the CE on the narrow ground that he is a Beijing appointee. No one for a century and a half ever complained that the British colonial government had been, without exception, a London appointee. It defies logic to link the selection process of the CE to the economic woes brought on Hong Kong by market fundamentalism and dollar hegemony. But the "free" press in Hong Kong never bothers to point out that simple fact.

Under British colonial rule, both the Executive Council (Exco) and the Legislative Council (Legco) were under the dictatorial control of the British governor, with zero tolerance for dissent. The role of these two "advisory" councils was limited to selling to the public the dictatorial policies of the British colonial administration, never to show reservation, let alone opposition to them. The colonial subjects merrily went along because their colonial education had taught them that the omnipotent great white master knew better.

Now, under the SAR structure, the Exco and Legco members suddenly feel that they are no longer obliged to support the policies of the CE. They begin to assume the role of independent politicians with self-selected independent constituents, often gaining political mileage by opposing government policies and measures, covertly if not openly. This new independence in a leftover political structure has made Hong Kong practically ungovernable. And the government's own free-market ideology, out of sync with its half-hearted industrial-policy actions, transforms a public deeply disappointed by dismal economic realities to an eager mob hostile, albeit so far peacefully, toward the government, focusing on an allegedly incompetent CE, not withstanding that Hong Kong could do much worse than having Tung Chee-hwa as its chief executive at this moment in history. Tung is a decent, self-effacing and quietly hard-working patriot who tries hard to make his many friends around the world understand Hong Kong better. It is hard to imagine from the known faces in Hong Kong politics anyone who would do a better job than Tung. The position of chief executive of Hong Kong is shaping up to be a nearly impossible and thankless job.

Yet the peaceful side of the protests carries with it dark clouds of threats of large-scale violence that demonstration organizers freely imply with the tone of political blackmail. The residual colonial mentality within the government, particularly the civil service, carries with it a tendency to ignore the public, coupled with a permissive, hesitant and cautious government, has been exploited by seasoned international democracy/human-rights activists who are highly experienced in orchestrating massive demonstrations that have toppled governments in the name of democracy in many countries, most of which ended up in worse shape than before "democracy" took over.

Democracy, like motherhood, is supported by everyone. But democracy, like motherhood, comes in many forms. There is the motherhood from happy marriages, from unwed mothers, from rape victims, from women with genetic defects or mental problems. Thus motherhood arrives in a variety of social contexts that affects its desirability. The same is true about democracy.

The word "democracy" does not appear in the US Declaration of Independence, which is really a secessionist document. Nor does it appear in the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights, or in president Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Thus when the US promotes democracy all over the world, it promotes a slogan whose meaning is far from well defined. For the Roman Catholic Church, whose record on freedom and democracy has been embarrassing, to put it kindly, to protest on behalf of freedom and democracy is a moral irony of the highest order. For centuries, the Church of Rome was an instigator of religious wars and inquisitions, a relentless agent for thought control, heresy suppression and witch-burning, and an intolerant persecutor of other religions. It has been the most powerful purveyor of institutional anti-Semitism and a fervent supporter of imperialism. The controversial relationship between Nazi Germany and the Vatican under Pope Pius XII has not been forgiven by the victims of Nazism. The Vietnam War was partly sparked by Catholic persecution of Buddhists, perpetrated by a Catholic leader installed by French imperialists under Catholic influence, with the encouragement of a Catholic US president advised by Cardinal Spellman of Boston. To this day, the Vatican does not permit communists to join the Church. Nazi Party organization was modeled after the Vatican, with the party central committee modeled after the College of Cardinals. There is no democracy inside the Church.

The quarrel the Vatican has with China is not about religious freedom, but about the issue of a national church not controlled from Rome, an issue settled in France and England centuries ago with much bloodshed. The Catholic Church's opposition to the proposed security law is not about religious freedom but about the legitimacy of a Chinese national church in Hong Kong. The issue of freedom is only a flimsy pretext.

Pope John Paul II, in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, specifically criticizes the aspect of capitalism that is not placed in the service of human freedom and the human family in its totality. The Bishop of Hong Kong, whose congregation represents only 4 percent of the population, strains credibility when he selectively protests against loss of freedom while remaining silent about the human abuses of capitalism, for which Hong Kong is a living example.

Communists also treasure democracy. They just do not appreciate the US definition of democracy. Mao Zedong spoke of the New Democracy and democratic centralism. Intra-party democracy is a subject of continuing debate within the Chinese Communist Party. One of the slogans of the demonstration in Hong Kong has been: "Return power/politics to the people." Seriously speaking, returning power/politics to the people can only lead to socialism in Hong Kong. Are the self-proclaimed "Democrats" in Hong Kong really prepared for that?

Even Alexis de Tocqueville's concept of democracy changed over time. In 1830, he regarded democracy as a dynamic process, which required an "equality of conditions" that was prevalent in America. In his view, the democratic process - ie, the continuous evolution of social order - would end only when all political privileges, including wealth inequality, were eradicated. Ten years later, in his second volume of Democracy in America published in 1840, a different image of democracy prevailed: that of a leveling power that would not be restricted to social order, but which would also challenge the right of material property - in other words, democratic socialism. Furthermore, he saw the danger that democracy could level any intellectual or individualistic distinctions. The notion of "tyranny of the masses" was troubling to Tocqueville.

Francis Lieber (1798-1892) came to Boston from Germany in 1827 and settled in South Carolina. In his new home, he founded the academic discipline of political science, inspired partially by the dissatisfying conditions he found in southern US society, which was far from the liberal concepts of democracy that he aspired to. He edited the first edition of The Encyclopaedia Americana (1829-33). In his books A Manual of Political Ethics (1838), Essays on Property and Labor (1841), and On Civil Liberty and Self Government (1853), Lieber maintained that liberty has to be realized in and by institutions. The national state seemed to him the natural vessel for liberty to prosper. In liberal thought, the state's main function is to protect every individual's liberty, not just that of the moneyed class. By being the ultimate instance to solve conflicts, the state's role reflects far-reaching tensions between liberty and equality, since pluralism requires relativism. Lieber saw patriotism and democracy as natural partners. To Lieber, the idea of liberty always collides with demands for equality.

It is not clear that these concepts of liberty and democracy have been given much thought by the slogan-chanting demonstrators and their programmed sponsors in Hong Kong.

A case can be made that the democracy movement in Hong Kong is the fruit of a kind of motherhood that has resulted from cultural/political rape of the colony by British colonialism and US neo-imperialism. Hong Kong never enjoyed democracy of any kind until Britain was forced to return Hong Kong to China. The people of Hong Kong never had any experience with democracy of any form, nor had the subject been taught in schools. Nor had they been allowed to develop any democratic institutions during 150 years of British colonial rule. Thus the instant democracy promoted by British/US interests since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the Return of Hong Kong in 1982 has been fundamentally a bogus Cold War institution for legitimizing anti-China and anti-communist sentiments to extend neo-colonial control in the former colony.

Democracy as an operating polity requires supporting institutions, such as an established system of mature political parties with defined ideologies, an informed voting public and a balanced press. The British never permitted such institutions in colonial Hong Kong, let alone nurtured them, until the Joint Declaration was signed in 1982.

Hong Kong does not have a balanced press in the English language even now. All the major English-language newspapers in Hong Kong are hostile to China and the Chinese political system. Freedom of the press is limited to reports and commentaries critical of Chinese politics and culture and hostile to China generally. The so-called free press in Hong Kong is nothing more than an instrument of Western cultural imperialism. There is no communist party in Hong Kong (illegal under British colonial rule) and no government party such as the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) in Japan or the People's Action Party (PAP) in Singapore. A two-party system does not exist in Hong Kong. The government does not engage in political patronage to bolster popular support for a government party.

Political parties were illegal in Hong Kong before 1990. There was little incentive even to form them underground. Under British colonial rule, both the Exco and the Legco were merely advisory bodies. Legco members were either appointed by the governor or selected by functional constituencies. Consequently, there was no need for political support organizations. Politicians were business people or professionals representing sectional interest groups. They were chosen on the basis of loyalty to British colonialism rather than on political courage or wisdom, and were expected to eschew anti-imperialist ideologies in preference for enhancing factional interests under colonialism.

Political parties and politicians only started to appear after direct elections for some Legco seats began in the early 1990s. Even today, political parties in Hong Kong remain embryonic. The Democratic Party has a membership of 590, smaller that the elective committee of 800 that elected the CE. The founding chairman of the party never faced opposition candidates in party elections, making its commitment to democracy a farce. Lacking power other than obstruction of administration policies, there is little incentive to develop meaningful policy platforms. The level of political debate consequently tends to be rather unsophisticated and accusatory.

Hong Kong frequently compares itself to Singapore. The PAP in Singapore was founded in 1954, and in the 1950s acted as a left-wing party of trade unionists, whose leadership consisted of elite English-educated lawyers and journalists and lowly Chinese-educated and pro-communist trade-union leaders and educators. It won control of the government in the crucial 1959 election to the Legislative Assembly, which was the first election with a mass electorate and for an administration that had internal self-government (defense and foreign relations remained under British control). After a bitter internal struggle, the English-educated, moderate and more pragmatic wing of the party triumphed over the pro-communists in 1961 and went on to an unbroken string of electoral victories, winning all the seats in parliament in the 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980 general elections.

With a single party and set of leaders ruling the country for 30 years, Singapore had what political scientists called a dominant party system or a hegemonic party system, similar to the LDP of Japan or the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Mexico. There were regular elections and opposition parties and independent candidates contested the elections, but after the early 1960s the opposition had little chance of replacing the PAP, which regularly won 60-70 percent of the popular vote. The strongest opposition came from the left, with union-based parties appealing to unskilled and factory workers. In the early 1960s, the union movement split between the leftist Singapore Association of Trade Unions and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), which was associated with Lee Kuan Yew's pragmatic wing of the PAP. In 1963 the Singapore Association of Trade Unions was banned and its leaders arrested as pro-communist subversives. The NTUC was controlled by the PAP and followed a government-sponsored program of "modern unionism", under which strikes were unknown and wages were, in practice, set by the government through the National Wages Council.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is still a political vacuum when it come to party politics and will turn into political chaos if the CE and Legco members are suddenly elected by universal suffrage without a dominant government party.

The July 1 demonstration was described by the world media as a political mass action. Yet politics is the art of the possible, and political actions must have realizable objectives. As long as democracy in Hong Kong is a synonym for anti-communist and anti-China institutions, there will be no democracy, since no government can be expected to welcome its own demise from mob rule manipulated by hostile foreign forces. If the people of Hong Kong truly desire democracy, they must demonstrate that their democracy is a patriotic democracy, not a bogus Western democracy to perpetuate neo-colonialism.

China promised Hong Kong that there would be a period of "50 years without change" after it assumed sovereignty in 1997. It is hard to argue that the introduction of democracy in Hong Kong would not represent a significant change. Either 50 years without change, or it is an open season for change on all levels, including the abandonment of the colonial legal system. Hong Kong has to pick which option it wants. And it would be naive on the part of some in Hong Kong to think that the "one country, two systems" policy can be manipulated into an opening to topple the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland.

Narcissistic Hong Kong would do well to notice that public opinion on the mainland on the superiority complex in Hong Kong is far from positive. The wealth in Hong Kong came from what the British did not haul off to Britain of what they had milked from China through Hong Kong's compradore role during the age of imperialism and even now under neo-imperialism. Now that Hong Kong is trapped by its dysfunctional economic structure and its fixation on the merits of neo-liberal market fundamentalism, it demands help and special privileges from China while it continues to proclaim its residual colonial system superior.

Many of Hong Kong's economic woes are self-imposed. Hong Kong's outdated currency peg got the economy into a boom-and-bust bubble. Now, to maintain an unsustainable and undeservedly high standard of living, Hong Kong looks to the mainland for help. To add insult to injury, it has demanded such bailouts with a rejection of its minimal responsibility for national-security legislation in the name of freedom and democracy. Hong Kong has retained the title of the world's freest economy since the free-economy index was first published in 1996 by the Cato Institute and the Fraser Institute, yet its economy has dived since 1997. This begs the question about the connection between freedom and prosperity. Perhaps democracy advocates in Hong Kong should seek help from the Cato Institute to save the distressed Hong Kong economy (see The 'freest economies in the world' , July 12).

Hong Kong's aim to be a world financial center is a fantasy. The Hong Kong market is too small to claim that status. The average daily trading volume in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is about US$1 billion, which is less than the trading volume of a single blue-chip share on the New York Stock Exchange. Hong Kong makes much of its British common law legal system, but in reality, since Hong Kong looks to China as the source of its financial prowess, having a legal system disconnected from China's is a hindrance, not an asset. No British company has come to list its shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to take advantage of Hong Kong's British legal system. The reality is that two major commercial firms, both anchors of British imperialism, moved out of Hong Kong before the territory was returned to China in 1997. Anyone who thinks Hong Kong can compete with Shanghai as the financial center of China is simply not thinking straight.

Speaking of being an international finance center, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) announced last Friday that the financial secretary, following the advice of the Remuneration and Finance Subcommittee of the Exchange Fund Advisory Committee, had approved the appointment of William A Ryback as deputy chief executive of the HKMA with effect from August 27. Ryback will succeed David Carse, who will leave the HKMA in September, as deputy chief executive in charge of banking policy, development and supervision issues.

Ryback has considerable experience in both banking supervision and in multilateral financial cooperation. Since 1986 he has held various positions at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, where he was senior associate director before his departure last month.

Joseph Yam, chief executive of the HKMA, said: "Mr Ryback will bring valuable knowledge and experience to the HKMA at a time when Hong Kong's banking sector is undergoing change and development. His expertise on multilateral supervisory cooperation is especially relevant in an international financial center such as Hong Kong, and his strong links with multilateral organizations will help the HKMA's work at a time when new international supervisory standards are being applied in Hong Kong." All this is without doubt.

Yet one can pose the question on whether there is any localization program in Hong Kong at a time when all transnational companies are actively implementing full-fledged localization all over the world, particularly in Asia. Banking regulation is a fast-changing field where experience more than five years old is only of academic interest. Why is it that in the past six years the HKMA, under Yam, failed to institute an affirmative program for local talent to assume the post left by Carse, whose retirement had been anticipated? What kind of international finance center is it that its Monetary Authority, Hong Kong's non-central bank (on account of its currency peg to the US dollar having relieved the HKMA of any central-bank monetary-policy responsibility), has to go the US Federal Reserve to find a deputy chief executive? Yet there is no protest or demonstration in Hong Kong on this important issue, or on the issue why the chief executive of the HKMA, whose central banking responsibility is automatically discharged through the currency peg, should command a salary almost 10 times that of Alan Greenspan, the real central banker of the United States. There is a lot of misreporting in the international media that "people power" scored a "victory" in forcing the government to postpone a vote in Legco on the proposed security law. Even the Washington Post had to acknowledge that the CE's hand had not been forced by "people power". He postponed the vote after a key member of Exco, James Tien, chairman of the Liberal Party, abruptly resigned, leaving the government with insufficient votes in Legco to enact the law as scheduled.

Tien's behavior was a classic example of political treachery, a cardinal sin in politics. If he had done what he did under a British colonial governor, he would have lost his party chairman post before he had a chance to resign and would have been branded a political and social pariah within 24 hours by the all-powerful governor/dictator. All firms that opposed British colonial government policy would have put their commercial prospect in Hong Kong in immediate jeopardy.

The Co-operative Resources Centre, a loose grouping of 20 prominent British gubernatorial appointees to Legco and Exco, formed itself into the Liberal Party in July 1993. The platform of the Liberal Party calls for "enhancing Hong Kong's international status; increasing Hong Kong's economic competitiveness" and "to create wealth for Hong Kong, enlarge business opportunities for all sectors, spur the adoption of modern city planning, and enrich our culture and our educational endeavors".

Yet Tien called for "protecting the property market as the key to recovery". He wrote in his capacity as party chairman on the party website: "I want to see measures introduced which will produce a 50 percent increase in the current market value. Only then will business as usual become, once more, the slogan of Hong Kong." It is hard to see how artificially increasing the market value of Hong Kong's property sector will increase Hong Kong's international competitiveness.

In another public message, Tien wrote: "The surest way to break old, bad habits is to adopt a zero-tolerance approach in prosecuting litterers, as well as introducing stringent measures to raise the level of public environmental awareness and a sense of social responsibility." This is the first time a zero-tolerance approach has been advocated by anyone wearing a liberal badge.

Yet both of these demands have largely been accepted by the government, of which the Liberal Party had been a major component supporter. As early as last December 21, describing the proposed security law as "the right time and the right law", James Tien wrote: "The past five years have shown that those assurances [from China] have been honored. Hong Kong continues to enjoy its freedoms, protected by common law and guaranteed under the Basic Law. Therefore, this is the right time for the SAR government to do what is legally required of it, namely to enact laws to protect the fundamental interests of the state and protect national security."

Yet, three days after the July 1 demonstration, and four days before the scheduled vote on the proposed legislation, Tien abruptly resigned by letter to the CE, not in person, and made his resignation known in to the media hours later. His treachery created a crisis atmosphere surrounding the governance of Hong Kong. The CE did not even have a chance to ask Tien face to face: "Et tu, Brute?"

What are the possible scenarios after the "unexpected victory for democracy advocates"? Already, there are press reports that Beijing has sent a team to investigate the situation to seek a complete and accurate understanding with which to prepare a proper response. Whatever Beijing finally decides to do, and there may not be any urgency, if only to dispel the misimpression that there is any real political crisis, these democracy advocates have lost more than they gained. By their agitation and manipulation of public discontent over the economy, they have provided a legitimate channel for what they fear most: intervention in Hong Kong's autonomy by Beijing, as evidence of foreign instigation inevitably surfaces.

Even an inexperienced lawyer would have no difficulty building a case that the Catholic Church in Hong Kong is directed from Rome, or that human-rights groups in HK are directed from headquarters located outside of Hong Kong, or that Hong Kong Falungong members are connected with and supported by Falungong's international network.

The so-called democracy advocates have won a meaningless battle, but they have lost the war of making Hong Kong more free and democratic. They have given democracy a bad name in Hong Kong as a bogus slogan of anti-China foreign intrigue. As a result, there will be less democracy in Hong Kong, and a harsher final version of the security law will be justified by these events, particularly if future demonstrations should turn violent, as threatened by some misguided and overzealous organizers. In the other corner, the government now will realize that it must succumb to an age-old necessary evil of political patronage to build a dominant government party along the path of the PAP of Singapore or the LDP of Japan. A politically neutral and benign government taking care of business is being dismantled in the process by those blindly demanding bogus democracy while naive demonstrators shouted slogans and waved candles for the international media.

Some have likened the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong to the events at Tiananmen more than a decade ago. Aside from the mismatch of any comparison, it should be remembered that the events in Tiananmen, whatever verdict history finally pronounced on them, by going beyond constructive bounds, undeniably and tragically set back progress on democracy in China, with no winners. And the way the government handled the situation saved China from the dismal fate of the Soviet Union.

All Tung Chee-hwa needs to do is to act as a strong leader that the Basic Law empowers in the post of chief executive to steer Hong Kong through this passing storm by adopting effective policies to restructure and revive the economy.