Benevolent despotism is no vote winner

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 January, 2004, 12:00am

THERE I WAS, sitting on my balcony on Sunday afternoon, working on bits and bobs, when out of the ether from RTHK radio news came the following gem:

'The permanent secretary for education and manpower, Fanny Law, says popularly elected bodies don't necessarily win the people's support. In fact, she says, they can be quite unpopular. In a series of open letters aimed at youth and published on the bureau's website, Mrs Law cites the findings of a Gallup survey purporting to show that legislative bodies that were elected by universal suffrage failed to win public trust. More than two-thirds of the respondents also thought their democratically elected governments had not ruled in line with the people's wishes. Mrs Law is urging politicians to heed the survey, saying Hong Kong should develop democracy step by step.'

What is this? I cannot give you the exact text of Mrs Law's letter to youth, as it was written in Chinese alone. It was billed as the first of 10 in an effort 'to discuss with young people topics relating to core values in personal growth'. Now, just for starters, how relevant to education or core values in personal growth are the partisan political opinions of a civil servant? How do these come to be represented as government policy by publication on a government website?

By way of background, the survey to which Mrs Law refers is the Gallup International Millennium Survey of 1999, which polled 57,000 people in 60 countries on a variety of subjects and drew attention at the time chiefly for highlighting the demise of religion around the world.

The democracy question that drew an answer of 'yes' from less than one-third of the respondents was: 'Would you say that your country is governed by the will of the people?'

But, as Gallup executives themselves pointed out, this finding seems inconsistent and enigmatic, given that 24 per cent of those who said 'No' to this question also said that elections in their countries were free and fair. There are certainly problems of definition here, more than enough to make the survey a highly unreliable prop for Mrs Law's views on democracy.

Let us leave them aside for the moment. There is a bigger question for Mrs Law. If she truly believes that legislative bodies elected by universal suffrage fail to win public trust, then why should she even advocate step-by-step democracy in Hong Kong? Democracy by her lights is a demonstrable failure. Best dispense with it entirely. And that leads to the question of what she may like in its stead. Perhaps Stalinism would do. Alternatively, we may look at Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Oops, sorry, there have been elections in Zimbabwe. It is a democracy. Bad choice. Well, not to worry, there are still enough non-democracies in the world to present Mrs Law with no difficulty in finding models aplenty.

I suppose, of course, that what she really favours before we reach step-by-step democracy (you will note that dates are never mentioned by people who advocate this) is kindly and paternal leaders judiciously selected by the existing authorities to follow a wise course of peace and prosperity for all and to avoid fractiousness.

I would like this, too, but I do not expect to find it until I cross through the Pearly Gates. The fact remains that democracy may be a bad system of government, very bad indeed, but all the others ever devised are much worse. Somehow benevolent despotism never stays benevolent for long. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and, if you want more homilies along this line, you can easily find volumes of them long written.

But let us put it to the test, Mrs Law. If you think that government through a popularly elected body may be unpopular and will not necessarily win people's support, you can quite easily ask us. Just one simple question through referendum will do the trick.

We could even make it binding. If we say, as you seem to expect us to do, that we do not want a direct voice in our own affairs, then we need not trouble ourselves with step-by-step democracy any longer. Things will be easy for you. We can have government by shipowners' heirs forever.

Go ahead, Madam, ask us. I am sure you will find many people who do not place much trust in their elected representatives but just ask them if they find this reason enough to shun democracy in favour of government by people imposed on them from outside. You could be in for a surprise.