Unnatural selection

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong's impatient push for greater democracy has little resemblance to the extraordinary images we are seeing of mass Iranian protests demanding more freedoms. But read the protest banners and you'll probably be reminded of Hong Kong. The one that struck me most read: selection, not election. That's precisely what we have in Hong Kong.

The 'selection, not election' banners mock the vote count as a fraud to ensure President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide win. Our own chief executive elections are never a fraud in that sense. There is no vote-rigging to ensure a certain outcome. The ballots of the 800 members of the Election Committee are properly counted.

But there the difference ends. It is still a selection. An election becomes a selection when only 800 out of millions are allowed to choose. In that context, you can call the election a fraud.

Huge crowds of Iranian protesters waved 'where's my vote?' placards. It wasn't that they were excluded. All the millions of eligible voters were included. The placards simply meant that a vote becomes worthless if the outcome is predetermined.

Hong Kong plays the selection game differently to ensure a predetermined outcome. Rather than manipulating the votes of millions, the millions are not allowed to vote. The desired outcome is ensured through exclusion instead of manipulated inclusion.

Hong Kong people haven't reacted to this in the same way the Iranians are reacting to their claimed fraud. There are no huge, angry street confrontations with riot police who fire live bullets. Hong Kong authorities wouldn't dare shoot at unarmed protesters anyway. We have enough democracy to make sure of that.

The huge street protests we do have are never angry ones. They are, in fact, quite carnival-like. And they are never aimed solely at challenging the authorities on our chief executive selection disguised as election. Even the July 1, 2003, march that drew half a million protesters was more about the public's loss of faith in the government than about democracy.

A week from now, it will be time again for another annual July 1 march. No one is expecting history to repeat itself. There will not be half a million people in the streets. What will repeat itself is the annual folly over the figures. Rally organisers will claim a far higher turnout and the police will counter with a far lower one.

What difference does it make? Since the 2003 march, there hasn't been a single unifying factor motivating the marchers anyway. Next Wednesday's rally will attract democracy activists, domestic helpers, unionists, sex workers, civil servants and more, all pushing their own agendas from a minimum wage and Lehman minibonds to anger over civil service pay cuts.

Will a higher turnout mean organisers can legitimately demand government action on all those issues? Does a lower police figure mean the government can ignore all the issues? How can we be sure which issues attracted the most marchers? And how can we possibly know if all the marchers support all the issues? Some marching for democracy may be dead set against a minimum wage for domestic helpers.

You can argue the point that they all turned up to show discontent with the government. But how can general discontent force the government into specific action? It was the clarity of the 2003 march that forced top leaders to quit. Likewise, the Iranian uprising is crystal clear in its singular message - a freer Iran.

Government officials are expecting about 100,000 at next week's march. They say privately they'll only sweat if it's at least three times that. Even if it was a million, without a targeted theme, the only message the march sends is that different people are unhappy over different things.

In a true election, this discontent can be turned into votes to oust the leader. Or you can oust a selected leader with a focused message, as we saw with Tung Chee-hwa. Hong Kong currently doesn't have one. The standby message - democracy - has already been worn too thin.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster