"Changing the tune of our calls for democracy in Hong Kong"
Calls for democracy in Hong Kong, though rooted in serious concerns about the implementation of universal suffrage under the Basic Law, are undoubtedly romanticised; like birdsong, sweet and uplifting, they underscore our hopes for a more egalitarian future for us and our children – yet they risk beckoning us to see only the rose-tinted future without questioning what the path to achieving it entails. These calls spurred into action a public – notably, the younger generation – which has been thought to be apathetic to political and social issues. Recent movements have shown that they are anything but apathetic; they are passionate, hopeful and determined about their democratic future. But what exactly is this effort directed at? The irony is that calls for democracy have moved us further away from its goals of social cohesion than ever before; amidst the emotional crescendo from the Umbrella Movement to the political wrangling over the government’s reform proposal for the election of the next Chief Executive, have we ever paused to consider why we are calling for democracy and how it will serve Hong Kong?
The actualisation of democracy in Hong Kong has acquired the status of a goal unto itself, without adequate attention paid to questions about which democratic models succeed or fail, and why. In this omission, the pursuit of democracy ‘at large’ without a discussion of the form and context in which an aspirational model is likely to operate in substantive terms, whether as a model that allows civic nomination or a blank vote option, puts the carriage before the horse. It predisposes calls to democracy to fail in fulfilling the expectations of the people of Hong Kong that democracy is the answer that will help fix all wrongs and deliver us from this political quagmire. The answer as to why we strive for democracy so vehemently lies perhaps in the societal conditioning that has nurtured a widespread logical fallacy: freedom is inherently good simply for the sake of offering us freedom. We seem to have taken for granted that democracy is both what we want and need in light of articles 3(2) and 3(5) of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the promise of gradual and orderly reform towards universal suffrage guaranteed in articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law. We are confident in Hong Kong that democracy can exist – and indeed, thrive; however, we must first decide what we want our democracy to look like, how we want it to function and to achieve what ends in order to protect our cherished Hong Kong values.
The pursuit of ‘democracy’ for democracy’s sake without considering the individual circumstances of Hong Kong and its present needs socially and politically, risks rendering it a meaningless concept. Do we seek democracy simply to mimic overseas systems? If so, we are no better than a schoolchild pleading to his parents for the latest pair of trainers in order to fit in with his peers. Or do we genuinely want an effectively functioning democratic system that will not entrench the mistakes other democratic systems are known for?
‘One person, one vote’, a process of civic nomination and improved representation in the Nomination Committee are often cited as indicators of our vision for a democratic Hong Kong; but if Berlusconi’s iron grip on Italian elections through his quasi-monopoly of the media has taught us anything, it is that even a civic nomination process is no guarantee of a result that is fair.
Democracy must achieve egalitarianism in both form and substance so that Hong Kong can address the problems that are the major sources of social discontent and disharmony. How would it address the deep-rooted cleavages across different sectors in society that are currently crippling Hong Kong and fuelling animosity across the political divide: rising property costs, an ever-widening wealth gap, poverty, equal access to education? In the absence of a model with characteristics that fully account for how these issues might fare in the context of a democratic system, democracy – even if attained in name – would be ineffective in practice.
Democracy as a ‘predetermined’ model of political arrangement in one form or another is not a panacea for the woes of Hong Kong that can simply be administered to combat a chronic ailment; rather, it is an all-pervasive system that requires the painstaking fostering of an environment conducive to organic growth and integration of the numerous institutions and cultural practices which support successful exercise of democratic political power by its constituents. Successfully achieving democracy is not as simple a task as ticking off a homogenous check-list of flat-pack boxes fresh from the production-line of Democracy Industries™. Rather, it necessitates first the establishment of conditions for a thriving democracy to be functional in practice.
“Democracy”, Karl Popper tells us, “is the word for something that does not exist” – it is ethereal and intangible. Thus, the quest for democracy ought to be as much about creating culturally and politically enabling conditions to pave the way for outcomes that have come to be universally defined as characteristic of a flourishing democracy – pluralism, freedom of expression and association, the structural and social institutions for change, and dialogue in conditions of reciprocal trust. It is moulding the malleable; it is artistry; it is living needlepoint, weaving the essence of culture, community, language and society into a canvas of supporting factors to create the DNA of a specialised democratic system. Each system warrants its own form of democracy. Therefore, while one cannot pinpoint a universal model of what democracy is, we can certainly identify what it is not.
Accordingly, today, the basis upon which we can reject the government’s reform proposal is simply that we inherently know this is not democracy – it lies too far away on the spectrum to constitute democracy, even if we have not yet enumerated what the milestones towards democracy on this spectrum are. As we prepare for the looming rejection of the government’s reform proposal for the election of the Chief Executive, we must reflect on why so-called democratic models abroad have failed to deliver on the same issues that have struck at the heart of Hong Kong’s stability. It is only when we turn our gaze critically towards other democracies that we can identify the form our aspirational model of a democratic Hong Kong should take given its present composition, constitution and political constraints; we should not fall prey to demanding that we emulate one or another model blindly simply because certain mechanisms have worked in countries that are brandished as ‘democracies’. We ought to pay close attention to the specific context within which certain mechanisms thrive whilst others fail to do so and use that to inform our cause.
Without focusing on the details of what we seek so desperately and more importantly, why, just like even the sweetest birdsong, calls for democracy will become nothing more than background noise after the failure of the government’s reform proposal, tuned out as we move forward with our daily lives.
Ms. Kapai is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong and Director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, University of Hong Kong; Dr. Elgebeily is Assistant Research Officer at the Centre for Comparative and Public Law, University of Hong Kong.
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