My Take

Democracy has no universal standard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 3:21am

Civic Party boss Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said the standards for universal suffrage "are not Western but universal". In granting the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo , the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thorbjorn Jagland said "human rights are universal". But what on earth can they mean by "universal"?

Language may be a universal human phenomenon, but there is no such thing as a universal language. The longing for liberty - or freedom from bondage - may be a universal desire, but different peoples have come up with different social conventions, governments and systems of morality to realise what they claim is true freedom. Democracy is not universal; no more than is tyranny, which is far commoner in history. There is no one form of democracy; it is as various from Scandinavia and Denmark to Japan and the US. Some democratic countries like Italy rarely deliver a stable and legitimate government. Others do much better.

At one time or another, believers have claimed this or that religion is universal. In secular societies, democracy and human rights have become for many a religion. Yes, there are deep insights in the Koran and the Bible; and in the US Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But to claim that they are universal is no more than a nifty trick of language. The UN declaration is a convention, but it is a useful fiction to claim that it is universal. Some conventions are stronger than others, and human rights are one of the strongest we have devised to protect ourselves. Humans are weak and need protection against repressive communities and governments. Human rights standards offer a degree of protection, but conventions they are.

What does this mean for Hong Kong? From British colonialism to Chinese authoritarianism, Hong Kong has preserved itself as a free society, albeit with an undemocratic government. Now we have a historic opportunity to go all the way. But we have a far better chance of success if we focus, and build on, our own indigenous and special conditions and constraints rather than dogmatically pointing to some non-existent universal democratic standard of suffrage.