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.