My Take

De Tocqueville's study of democracy has lessons for Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 3:31am

Mainland officials, according to a recent report, have been instructed to study Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Hong Kong people might want to turn to his other great work, Democracy in America.

In it, they would readily recognise many features of an emerging democracy like ours. However, the book's title is, in a sense, historically misleading. When de Tocqueville travelled in the US to study its penal system in the early 1830s, the country was not a democracy in our usual sense of the word. Some states still required property ownership as a voting qualification. While this was dropped over the next decade for all white men, women and free black men continued to be barred from voting. Meanwhile, a cotton plantation economy expanded in the South that fuelled the global slave trade, which undermined the slavery abolition provisions in the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna. Just as old Europe moved to ban the slave trade, young America perpetuated it.

But de Tocqueville was correct in the sense he intended his book to be - as a sociological study of American society. In a decisive break with the Western canonical analyses of democracy from Aristotle to Hobbes, de Tocqueville did not think the word only denotes a type of political regime or system of government, but also a kind of society. In the US of the 1830s, he believed, there was a free and democratic society even without a fully democratic state. From this state-society distinction came his most influential analysis of what he calls public associations; together they form what we today call civil society.

NGOs, independent schools, district councils, green and sport groups, churches, animal welfare groups, urban planning advocates - they form the backbone of a free society. To kill liberty, a state would have to stifle these groups. To make a state democratic and free, these groups would have to expand and make it responsive to their demands. If, like me, you believe Hong Kong is already a free society in de Tocqueville's sense, the fight for universal suffrage will still be important, but less urgent; building trust with Beijing is more important. But if you, like the pan-democrats, believe our government - and Hong Kong - is undemocratic, then that fight is urgent and all-consuming.