Hong Kong doesn't need democracy lite

Regina Ip laments that the rights and responsibilities that come with democratic development have not been fully understood, in particularby those who reduce them to campaign slogans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 5:20am

Observers of the Legislative Council election earlier this month would have been disappointed if they had looked for a "game-changing" debate between the candidates from the pan-democrat and pro-establishment camps, in the mould of the Nixon-Kennedy duel in the first televised US presidential debate in 1960, or the leaders' debate between then British prime minister Gordon Brown and his challengers David Cameron and Nick Clegg in April 2010.

It was particularly disappointing because there was no lack of issues worthy of serious discussion. Apart from various socio-economic issues likely to dominate the new legislative agenda, such as standard working hours and the need for "universal retirement benefits", one issue stood out during the campaign - namely, what are the core values of Hong Kong?

Indeed, many pan-democrat candidates made "defending Hong Kong's core values", "safeguarding Hong Kong", or "preventing Hong Kong from turning red or being subsumed by mainland China" a central theme of their platforms. Even some candidates from the pro-establishment camp made "saying no to the government" or "standing firm against Article 23 of the Basic Law" their chief slogan.

It is a pity that, because of the number of candidates, the debate forums organised by the television networks generally allowed candidates at most one minute to introduce themselves, and three minutes to present their policy platforms, during which time other candidates were allowed to interrupt or talk over them. The televised sessions are more like high-decibel shouting matches, and quickly degenerated into strident, personal attacks.

The debate on Hong Kong's core values barely got under way during the election. For the sake of a better understanding of Hong Kong, it is well worth the effort to pick up the pieces and tease out the issues involved.

Candidates clearly wanted to capitalise on Hong Kong people's fear of being subsumed into mainland China's way of life. In the past year, cases of alleged human rights abuse, the elite power struggles on the mainland, plus recurrent distrust of its food safety and hygiene standards have reinforced Hong Kong people's wish to be kept separate from the mainland. This, despite Hong Kong being an integral part of the country and ever more dependent on the mainland for food, water and business.

What constitute Hong Kong's core values? Implicit in the pan-democrats' clarion call to "defend Hong Kong" is their canonisation of the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms, and a democratic system of government. Unfortunately, while large numbers of people have latched on to these buzzwords as the be-all and end-all, few have fully understood their meaning.

Take the rule of law for example. While many in Hong Kong would equate the rule of law with saying no to Article 23, or legislative interpretation by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, some legal experts from the West think otherwise. When Larry Kramer, then dean of Stanford Law School, addressed a gathering of Hong Kong's crème de la crème last year, he said the rule of law meant different things to different people. Based on his experience of helping the rule of law develop in East Timor, he thought its prime objectives must be to ensure physical security, followed by the protection of property.

Within our community, few promoters of rights and freedoms are willing to acknowledge that rights and freedoms are not absolute.

A delicate balance is implicit in the famous Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which says that the exercise of the rights enshrined in that article - the right to hold opinions without interference, and the freedom of expression - carries "special duties and responsibilities", and may be subject to certain restrictions, including respect for the rights or reputation of others.

Yet, gross simplification is true of the democracy narrative bandied around by Hong Kong's motley crew of democratic promoters. As advocates press for universal suffrage - no doubt the ultimate manifestation of popular sovereignty - few are aware that institutional design, party development, the cultivation of political talent and democratic education are vital pieces of the democratic infrastructure.

Nor has Hong Kong in the past thrived purely on the rule of law, the protection of individual rights and freedoms, or the introduction of democracy.

One of Hong Kong's most distinguished public servants, Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, then chief secretary, noted on the eve of his departure that somehow the chemistry of the prodigious industry of the Chinese people, their work ethic, perseverance and fortitude in the face of adversity, coupled with the British rule of law, worked - and produced an East Asian economic miracle.

Let us not forget the importance of these "founding virtues" of our forebears. To ensure Hong Kong's continuing success, we need a combination of the traditional virtues or values of the Chinese people and the Western systems we so strongly treasure. We privilege one set of values at the expense of the others at our peril.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party