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  • Apr 20, 2014
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My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 5:28am

Democracy is not a panacea

In an underdeveloped democracy, wrote Emily Lau Wai-hing in the International Herald Tribune yesterday, taking to the streets is one of the few ways that the people can be heard. The lawmaker and chairwoman of the Democratic Party was, of course, referring to the massive protest turnout yesterday despite the typhoon.

Interestingly, Thomas Friedman, the famous columnist, was posting, on the opposite page, a related question by quoting a former CIA analyst: "Why are we seeing so many popular street revolts in democracies?"

In the past few months, we have seen mass protests in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Chile, Greece, Indonesia and Bulgaria. During the most acute phases of the global financial crisis, there were demonstrations in Spain, Britain, and the United States as well. Mass protests, like politics, are local, so each has its own causes. But this does not mean they don't have similarities or even common underlying causes and themes.

We are in a summer of global, not just local, discontent. The world may be at one of those inflection points of historical change, and our city is part of that. But in Hong Kong, it's difficult to arrive at an accurate diagnosis of our social and political ills when so many people, in their zest for full democracy, tie those problems to our lack of it. As much as I support their goal, I don't share their optimism about democracy. I will address the widespread belief that full democracy will soften deep social divisions in Hong Kong in tomorrow's column.

Let's take the wealth/poverty gap debate as an example. Icarus Wong Ho-yin, an organiser of yesterday's march, blamed Chief Executive Leung Chin-ying for it. "C.Y. has not delivered what he has promised," he said. "The lives of Hongkongers have been getting worse, with an obvious example being the wide poverty gap." Actually, it's far from obvious. The widening wealth gap is an intricate, almost universal, phenomenon, found in developed and emerging markets, in democracies as much as under authoritarian regimes. Wong's accusation may be a good rallying point, but it's no explanation.

Yes, fight for democracy because it embodies human values worth fighting for. But it is not a panacea and may even cause more trouble.

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This article is now closed to comments

whymak
Some people have extremely low mental capacity. They demand nothing less than a yes/no answer for everything. This is their worldview: China=evil, Western democracy=good.
From arguments put forward by some readers, I conclude that they can only handle one unit of information, logarithm of 2 (number of states) to the base 2.
Alex Lo's insinuation of Democracy failures offends their sensibilities. He is better off playing music to a cow, 對牛彈琴.
Indeed, Emily Lau is music to their ears. What endears her to the mindless mob is her level of charlatanism. No matter. The press never made an issue of her total ignorance in Exchange Fund's balance sheet when she confronted Joseph Yam, former CE of HKMA. For the media, undefined “True Democracy” is by far the best topic, where every moron could indulge in the fantasy of power sharing – getting nominated or elected.
I say Hong Kong is not ready for self-government. How could Ms. Lau not knowledgeable in the ABC of accounting become chairman of Legco's Finance Committee?
Some assume a leader elected by universal suffrage will distribute wealth more equitably. What if Anson Chan, who is just as illiterate in economics, gets elected? What if she runs the economy into the ground and your flat’s value becomes halved? What’s left to distribute?
I am talking about scenario planning, not fear mongering. And I am sure this is not something anti-establishment airheads could understand.
johnyuan
The “close-mindness” of many, wrote and writes often in the SCMP with comments jarringly exist among only a very few whose thought and response are worthy to air and to be reader of Alex Lo’s column respectively. It will be just wishful to have comments in more civilized thoughts even in the hundreds on an issue like in the New York Times for SCMP. The low standard only matches with helpless colorful name-calling are temper agitator that becomes contagious. Helplessly trapped in empathy.
whymak
Reader chaz_hen has a big hole in his argument against Mr. Lo. Just read People's Daily the number of mass events in China or the vituperations against injustice and corruption in the free-for-all Chinese blogs.
A person demonstrates because he is too stupid to articulate for himself. Being a lemming helps cover up his inadequacy. This fact is far from obvious. If it is, the demonstrators will be ashamed of their mindless behavior and end up staying home instead.
Do demonstrators really want to be heard? Of course not. There are so many different groups there, each with its own grievance and agenda. In fact, it is the best place to have your voice drowned out.
But at least for a few, there is only one plausible explanation: a sadomasochistic public self-flagellation as an analgesic for their unpleasant, trivial existence. Yes, this human condition needs empathy.
Here is the rub. How do you tell brainwashed folks to get real without sounding like you are mocking them?
clc2
Choosing a leader is always a bit of a **** shoot. What democracy allows is for the public to change its mind.
It's a social contract -- we will allow you to govern us for so long as you govern well.
Since HK and China are no longer tribal, some form of democracy should do well here.
That China was not among those places where democracy first developed doesn't make it bad for China. For some reason, perhaps the biggest historical mystery of the 2nd millenium, China snoozed away 500 years in splendid isolation from 1421 or so, deteriorating to the point where it's amazing that the place survived as one political entity.
The anti-democracy critters would be better occupied speculating on the relative decline of China rather than fencing out democracy. Right now, they're about as constructive as the Ming Dynasty laws discouraging trade by sea.
Given China's long and distinct culture and current revival, I would expect Chinese implementing democratic institutions to make some distinct (and copyable) innovations. (Suggesting that the right to vote comes without the right to nominate candidates won't be among these innovations, even though a proponent of that idea got as prize from C.Y., the Chinese Governor.)
pslhk
AL told us what democrazy isn’t
Reader cdf’s comment is “so what?”
I’d suggest that demo crazy is an addictive placebo
for those afflicted by a hybrid
Dutch + Stockholm + anencephalic disease
that is chic among simpletons in some developing countries
exhibiting impulsive compulsive follow-the-jones syndrome
FN: It’s more appropriate to call the resources led disease
Anglo-American than Dutch
wwong888
alex is a commie through and through... got those marching orders from your propaganda chief again?
maecheung
"Icarus Wong Ho-yin, an organiser of yesterday's march, blamed Chief Executive Leung Chin-ying for it. "C.Y. has not delivered what he has promised," he said. "The lives of Hongkongers have been getting worse, with an obvious example being the wide poverty gap.".........The wide poverty gap does not happen overnight, it was caused by years of government mismanagement and collusion with big business. I am no fan of CY, but at least he is willing to tackle this problem, and to be fair, don't expect the problem to be gone overnight or in the near future. I agree with Alex, that democracy does not cure it all, in fact, sometimes it takes an authoritarian with a determination to address the grass roots' issues, employing drastic measures to get the job done.
I think Thomas Jefferson has said something like "Democracy is pleasing the 51% while antagonizing the other 49% of population"
Sticks Evans
Nice article Alex.
honkiepanky
Democracy is not a panacea; it is a mechanism for resolving conflict and conferring legitimacy on government actions. To be against democracy is to be for HK's current cycle of protest and civil strife, resulting from the perception (if not reality) that the government serves the interests of tycoons and Beijing rather than that of the people.
sudouest
Since when the concept of choosing your head every N years is going to solve problems that need solution that is occurring now or in N-2 year ? What is needed is a competent and a responsible government, and an outlet for them to be held accountable for their actions and responsibility given to them. It's that simple.
Democracy is simply one of many solution, but not the ultimate best one. We should develop our own system.

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