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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 10:25pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 4:52am

Democracy doesn't come with guarantees

If someone demands freedom and democracy, there is really no good argument against him. You just have to concede and go along. But if someone makes a further claim, as some pan-democrats have done, that only full democracy can resolve or at least soften deep divisions in our society, that's highly debatable. The opposite argument - that it will exacerbate conflicts between different classes, vested interests and groups, and may even make Hong Kong-mainland relations more difficult - seems to me to be equally, if not more, plausible.

There is little empirical evidence that democracy calms tensions and conflicts. Pay a visit to Istanbul, Sao Paulo or Brasilia, Cairo, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Santiago, Athens, Madrid, Jakarta, Sofia or Washington. These democratic cities and societies are as deeply divided and conflicted as Hong Kong in their own ways. I rather think people in "undemocratic" Hong Kong are divided like everyone else precisely because we are free, and legally protected, to air our grievances like any free and democratic society.

There is also no firm theoretical basis for the calming influence of democracy. While Western democracies have successfully resolved what has been called the "tyranny of the majority" problem, most if not all are plagued by what may be called "the tyranny of the minority" - activists obsessed with and committed to a single issue, say, abortion, farm subsidies or, in Hong Kong, where to put an incinerator. Their demands often override majority preferences.

Well, what about "the widening gap between rich and poor, the decline in opportunities for young people, the worsening housing problems, and the increasing inadequacy of our pension and health care systems", as a prominent pan-democrat said of the failure of governance in Hong Kong. These problems have more to do with market economics than democracy, and many democratic governments have trouble achieving any consensus to tackle these deep-seated, almost universal, problems.

There is also no reason to think a democratic Hong Kong would be friendlier to Beijing or to mainlanders. But Hongkongers are pragmatic, you say. If that's true, why not accept the status quo? The truth is that the pan-dems cannot guarantee democratic Hong Kong will never challenge Beijing on key sovereign policy issues any more than Beijing can guarantee it will never interfere in our domestic affairs. The pan-dems demand Beijing take a leap of faith in Hong Kong democracy while having no faith in Beijing's intentions. Trust can only work both ways.


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Dai Muff
The key about democracy is not voting people in, but voting people OUT.
No other system has a peaceful method for getting rid of a corrupt, self-interested, or just plain evil government.
Looking forward to your piece on why totalitarian dictatorships are not a panacea and don't come with guarantees.
This whole debate about whether democracy is good or bad is completely missing the point. We can argue for years if not decades about good examples of democratic states, bad examples of democratic states, pros and cons of various forms of democracy and so on.

The crux of the matter is that it is a basic right to choose your own government. You can approach that from the more materialistic angle of having the right to decide who spends the taxes you pay, or you can be more philosophical about this and talk about the right to self-determination etcetera.

Any people should have the right to choose in a fair, open and transparent way: what powers they would like to give their government (big government, small government, centralised, decentralised etc), and in whom they vest that power (the executive branch, the legislature etc). A democratic method based on passive and active universal suffrage is the most fair, open and transparent method I can think of.

And sure, nobody will be perfectly happy with the outcome. That is the whole point. It is a give and take. You compromise, you strike political bargains and so on. Sometimes with great success, sometimes perhaps less so. Mistakes will be made. Scandals will ensue. Governments will rise, and governments will fall. Some will be good, others will be bad.

But at least each and every one of us will be able to passively or actively participate in this process.
John Adams
A very wise article Mr Lo.
What most people forget is that, while democracy is not a bad thing, it's also not necessarily a good thing. Many countries which jumped head-over-heels into democracy ended up in civil war within a generation - the USA for one.
We only have to look at the fragmentation of and internecine strife within the pan-democratic camp to get a glimpse of how chaotic HK will become after 2017 if universal suffrage is introduced without a lot of checks and balances.
If the links I attach below work, I recommend your readers to the talk at TED by Eric X Li.
It will make them think even if they don't agree with Mr Li'c conclusions.
Eric X. Li 's TED Talk at TED Global 2013 in Edinburgh:
With Chinese subtitles:
mega ditto. Brasil has total democracy where EVERY citizen must vote. failure to vote is against the law. yet, the country is a mess. extremely poor infrastructure, mega violent crimes, corrupt govt., huge rich/poor income gap... in fact, democracy is part of brasil's structural problem...
then US, one of the oldest and most established democracy in the world. corrupt govt. poor infrastructure, violent crime, narco drugs, illegal immigrants, unfunded state and federal mandate (social security), unfunded expansion of military, healthcare system that millions are uninsured and resort to "emergence room"..... democracy... Obama Time...
Thank you Alex for at least attempting to provide a reasoned defense of the pessimist view on democracy. Your arguments are ultimately unconvincing, though.
As you said yesterday, democracy is not a panacea. No one claims that democracy can cure all problems in a deeply corrupt society a with weak to nonexistent tradition of liberalism. In this regard one has to ask whether HK is more like Egypt, Bulgaria, or Turkey; or more like (say) Taiwan, Canada, or Sweden. The question answers itself.
Regarding "tyrrany of the minority" -- HK has this problem too. The difference is that in mature democracies, determined interest groups are in the long run only able to get their way on narrow issues of secondary interest to the wider public (to use your examples: abortion and farm subsidies), whereas in HK powerful pressure groups are able to subvert the public will on major livelihood issues.
Every polity in the world has to constantly face difficult problems that admit no easy solutions -- that's life. What makes HK unique is that we have a number of pressing problems with blindingly obvious solutions (get dirty buses off the road; end the small house policy and build housing in the New Territories; put a tax on luxury goods to cut down tourist numbers), and huge budget surpluses that would allow these solutions to be put into effect immediately. That we don't do so is a measure of just how responsive our government is to powerful interest groups.
You should take care when defining democracy to note that one party states often have very few public shows of disagreement or to put it another way they present a united front. Your argument that Hong Kong will be chaotic because ', ,,,the fragmentation of and internecine strife within the pan-democratic camp..." merely illustrates the nature of a democratic system in that it allows competing ideals and points of view of different issues to be discussed in a transparent manner.
While you are arguing for a one party state why not also throw in your lot with the monarchists or better still you might like to show how successful the model adopted by North Korea has been.
You are of course correct in stating that the Hong Kong Democrats have only one platform. In fact they should be unelectable as they do not appear to have any clear policies aimed at tackling livelihood issues. Perhaps, if universal suffrage is introduced these parties will suddenly implode. Democracy won't be exciting. More likely it will only lead to Hong Kong people losing interest in politics for at least 3 and half years out of 4 and focus on livelihood issues. Not a bad thing.
Let's face facts, the fight for universal suffrage is not about Hong Kong but if Hong Kong is successful it is about a billion other people who will be watching it closely. Everyone knows this. And some fear this. Do you?
Your reference of the strife within the pan-democratic hits the nail right on the head. These opposition and pan dems only have one single issue to justify their existence for the high pay cheques. Where was Anson Chan, Martin Lee under the British colonial government? I didn't hear them fighting for universal suffrage.
Without details, any political system is you think and I think. And this is what civilization has made politics and in great extent the uncertainty is the effect of mass education. Original pure principled form remains in name. More have transform into a concoction of many. I have lived to see democracy ideally practiced in the 60s of last century in the US to the present of its questionable form. I also have lived to see Communism in China of non-private property ownership to become capitalism of ownership of all kinds. Political system without details can’t serve us any good. The name of a political system has more become a hindrance preventing engagement among us. In conclusion I can assure you there is no guarantee in politics. But having all said of my observation I still hope I had taken Poly (Political) Science 101 course to understand politic so to prove myself wrong that actually there is order in the world’s politic which we can depend on.
Democracy is not the panacea for all ills and it is difficult to run a democratic society, it always was, but that is not a good reason for having it. Chow Dao Fu puts it very well, it is as much about being able to vote people OUT. Only when HK has a free and open democratic system will it have the means to get rid of the squalid parcel of self-interested crooks who have insinuated themselves and their stinking corruption into the heart of our government policies.
Dai Muff
The key about democracy is not voting people in, but voting people OUT.
No other system has a peaceful method for getting rid of a corrupt, self-interested, or just plain evil government.
Looking forward to your piece on why totalitarian dictatorships are not a panacea and don't come with guarantees.
@caractacus: The fact that jayb knows so much about America's dark underbelly is probably because he/she has seen it first-hand and not because he/she reads China Daily. I happen to read China Daily (HK edition) myself on a regular basis - there's very little (if any) negative reporting on America if you ask me, unlike its American counterparts who jump at any chance to smear China. Think before you open your mouth, my friend, and yes don't believe everything you read in ANY newspaper, not just China Daily.
Democracy offers two aspects:
1) A society gets the opportunity to take responsibility for its (collective) decision and action e.g. it may thrive when competent and compatible public officials are elected, it may suffer when the incompetent and incompatible get the seats, and there is no one to blame except thyself as a voter, even if, and especially if one abstains from voting. Note the word 'may' because many things good or bad occur irrespective of good or bad officials.
2) A relatively more natural societal evolution (admittedly a bit of oxymoron in the phrase), whether leading to its expansion or extinction in the long run
A very objective assessment of the political climate here in HK!
John Adams
@ bmr
Precisely ! If HK disintegrates into total chaos within a few years of introducing universal suffrage, it will set back China's path to democracy by several generations. That's why we need "democracy with Chinese characteristics" in HK.
It took England about 600 years to develop its democratic system, during which they executed a couple of kings.
But also yes - probably people will just lose interest in politics for a long while if the whole thing is a shambles.
(A few public public executions might brighten things up, however ... :-)
I have a couple of people power candidates in mind after watching the antics on their stand in Wanchai on Monday )
I meant that isn't a good reason for NOT having it.
You obviously haven't been to America. Don't believe everything you read in China Daily.
Well said, aguabranca6480, very well said!
The democratic parties in HK are telling HK people just enough to get votes and attention. Democracy is a compromise, not fantasy promises or favors. Who wouldn't want to live in a democratic society, we all do. Who is willing to make the sacrifices and compromises to make it work? You can see it breaking in the USA, both parties don't work together for the benefit of the people but for special interest groups.
Read up on California and Proposition 13, there's a lesson there when people vote for their own benefits without taking responsibility for the expenses.
Democracy is a balancing act between idealism and realism.
Well done Alex! Democracy is only a means not an end. Plus democracy should come in various shapes and forms, not just the western parliamentary model which may or may not work in a certain setting.


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