On the move

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 December, 2010, 12:00am

Democracy is in retreat across the world: this is the depressing truth revealed by the latest Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit. In every region of the world over the past two years, we have seen a backsliding on previous hard-won gains in democratisation. Faith in democracy has been eroded as the grubby realities of real-world politics have tarnished the 'colour revolutions' in the former Soviet Union. In many countries, governments have stepped up attacks on critics in the media.

Meanwhile, across the developed world, the steady decline in political participation has continued, and civil liberties have been eroded in the fight against the 'war on terror'.

Trends in Hong Kong stand in contrast to this gloomy international picture. Although still ranked as a 'hybrid regime', the special administrative region's score in the index is one of the few that has improved since 2008. Its ranking among the 167 countries and regions in the index has climbed four places, to 80th. Democracy as an ideal remains a vibrant force in Hong Kong politics. Few countries have wrestled with the complexities of the issue in the way that the SAR has done over the past decade. Its position under the 'one country, two systems' formula is unique, and imposes special constraints. The fact that democracy has continued to make headway locally, despite the atrophying of political reform on the mainland, is a testament to the strong appeal that democratic values have in Hong Kong.

Much greater improvements may lie in store. Following the electoral reforms that were agreed in June this year, the elections in 2012 could be something of a landmark in the development of Hong Kong's democracy. For the first time, a majority of Legislative Council seats will be voted on by the mass electorate, giving the body a degree of popular legitimacy that will be hard for the next chief executive to deny.

The gradual rise in public criticism of the traditional elites that have run the city is another interesting trend. In the past, tycoons like Li Ka-shing were lauded as role models. Now they are criticised as 'devils', amid rising concern over the exploitative practices of some property developers.

The shift from rule by an established elite to a publicly accountable government is a positive sign - or rather an overdue recognition - of the city's political maturity. It of course brings with it some accompanying worries. More popular input into politics will probably erode Hong Kong's tradition of laissez-faire government. And the Democratic Party's decision to back this year's political reform package was a bold rejection of the all-or-nothing approach traditionally pursued by the democratic camp, but it raises questions over the pro-democracy alliance's long-term prospects. If Legco becomes more influential, will the issues of day-to-day government serve to pull the various strands of the movement further apart?

These are concerns for the future. For the moment, there are more pressing problems with the existing state of the SAR's democracy. In a city with over 7 million inhabitants, it is disgraceful that, even in 2012, the chief executive will still be chosen by a group of just 1,200 people. This is particularly unfortunate given the concentration of political power in the chief executive's office. On top of this, the functional constituencies remain an undemocratic anachronism.

The mistrust that mainland China still feels towards democratic reforms means that any progress advancing democracy in Hong Kong after 2012 will, by necessity, be incremental. China's ranking in the Democracy Index, at 136th, has not shifted since 2008, and the Chinese government's attitudes towards political reform look as conservative as ever. There is a chance that its next generation of leaders, set to take over in 2012-13, may have more flexible attitudes towards democratic reforms, but few would count on it.

For Hong Kong, there is a danger that this softly-softly approach could leave it lagging behind regional peers. Asia continues to boast some democratic laggards like North Korea and Myanmar, but many places in the region are making steady progress in strengthening their democracies. These include several Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia. This may reflect the standard argument that, as economies become wealthier, the conditions for establishing democracy gradually fall into place. But if, as some have argued, democracy itself is a powerful force for development, Hong Kong's sluggish progress towards full democracy could eventually prove to be a drag on growth.

Democracy is not a cure-all, as a brief glance at the countries above Hong Kong in the index will show. Thailand has struggled with coups, Argentina with ill-considered populism and several Latin American nations are locked into virtual civil wars against drug-related organised crime. Yet, to quote Winston Churchill, it is 'the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried'. Democracy at its best serves to guarantee individual freedoms and political accountability - a contract between governments and those they rule. In Hong Kong, that contract is not yet binding, but it is strengthening, and that is a very welcome sign.

Duncan Innes-Ker is senior editor/economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit