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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

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?
Sticks Evans
Nice article Alex.
johnyuan
In my view, there are two situations which when we use politics. When we deprive of something or there is something insufficient to be shared. The former we see how revolutions make history. The latter takes place everyday. Everyone would like a raise at work. Besides hard work, office politics is just if not more important. The annual protest march in Hong Kong is becoming a mixture of the two kinds. The government and political heavyweights shouldn’t mistake the protestors of their truly need. For those marchers who are less articulate they may carry or shout a simple slogan – "universal suffrage". They are thinking it would bring changes for a fair shot what Hong Kong can offer them. Respect their aspiration but mistaken not of their limited articulation. When livelihood improves we may see fewer in the streets next year. Of course, there are those insist on that all ills in Hong Kong would vanish if there is universal suffrage. I don’t. Democracy? Fine but which form? What are the details?
honkiepanky
I would 'like' this 100 times if I could.
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.)

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