Icing on the cake

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 July, 2009, 12:00am

At some point, Hong Kong's democracy advocates will have to come to their senses. They will have to accept the reality that they must wait at least well into the next decade to get what they want. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen won't fight alongside them for an early start to democracy. He knows it's pointless to do so and said as much during a face-off with legislators two weeks ago. Without the chief executive cheerleading, the fight for democracy's early arrival is as good as dead.

But the democrats already know that. They already know they are fighting for the sake of it. They lack direct access to China's decision-makers. That makes it impossible for them to sway the minds of those who matter. Their only conduit is Mr Tsang, and he's not playing ball.

He believes he has already done his democratic duty by extracting Beijing's pledge to start free elections from 2017. Besides, where's the upside in provoking his bosses by asking for something he knows he won't get when he's already learned to live with the downside of not asking?

Fighting for a lost cause has its romantic allure. It's the stuff of heroes, although I'm not sure if our democratic crusaders are seen as such. But, heroic or not, where's the value in banging your head against the wall if all it produces is a terrible headache? How does that help the cause?

Diehard democrats are drunk with the notion that, if they get enough people marching in the streets, Beijing will bow. It worked somewhat in 2003 when a march of half a million forced the scrapping of unpopular legislation on national security and the eventual downfall of Tung Chee-hwa as chief executive. It didn't work in 1989 when many more Hongkongers marched for democracy in solidarity with the Tiananmen Square protesters. Beijing not only didn't blink, it sent in the tanks to crush the Tiananmen uprising.

Mainland policymakers have yet to shed their mistrust of those leading Hong Kong's democracy movement. They still suspect the movement is somehow orchestrated by the West whose hidden agenda is to make Hong Kong a democratic beachhead to undermine the Communist regime. This may seem far-fetched but the fear of a bogeyman can cause irrational behaviour. A mass march therefore would steel, rather than soften, their resolve to go slow with Hong Kong democracy.

In any case, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Hong Kong people are so impatient for early democracy that they don't mind sacrificing other life-improvement goals for a lost cause. Yet improving the lives of the people seems to be a secondary consideration for those leading the hopeless charge for early democracy. They see democracy as such a remedy for all our ills that they can't see that much of what's wrong with us can actually be cured without it.

Do we really need to wait for democracy to demand the Tsang administration produce a fair-competition law to stop our two supermarket chains from behaving like a duopoly, with their fake sales and other rip-offs? Politicians growled at Mr Tsang's delay of a political reform review but merely whimpered at his delay of an anti-monopoly law. Do we really need democracy to stop property developers from duping us with fake sales brochures, to end dishonest sales tactics by pay-TV providers or to end government destruction of heritage sites?

If 100,000 people marched to demand democracy now, you still won't get it. If 100,000 people marched for anti-monopoly laws to stop supermarkets cheating us or for speedy action against air pollution, chances are you'll get it.

Sure, if 100,000 marched in North Korea, they would be shot. The people there desperately need democracy to improve their lives. Hong Kong's problem is not that we desperately need democracy. We simply need the icing on democracy's cake, and the sooner the better. But we already have enough freedoms now to get most things done. We just need to focus.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster