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  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 9:59pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Aping American democracy won't work in Hong Kong

Lau Nai-keung says some lawmakers misunderstand our own system

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 11:25pm

Along with the mandatory "one man, one vote", our dissidents have many prescriptions for the good governance of Hong Kong and the entire country. But with a general paucity of ideas, they invariably fall into the "US is best" category.

For example, they think China is too big for a unitary government and that it should adopt federalism to improve its governance. The problem is there is no evidence that governance in the US is in any way better than that in China, especially when we compare periods of similar economic levels.

Party politics is not a panacea and some kind of political coalition can be achieved with or without it

We have had a unitary government for over 2,000 years, have been the world's most powerful nation for 90 per cent of the time and are heading towards regaining that position soon. So, what is the point of artificially breaking it into independent states and reassembling them in the image of the US?

Here in Hong Kong, the dissidents say our political ills stem from a lack of party politics and the accompanying inter-party coalition. The problem, in a nutshell, is that we are an imperfect copy of the American system of separation of powers. The remedy, obviously, therefore, is to try to be a clone.

True to their word, our dissident lawmakers have not only copied the American filibuster, but have in fact improved on it, making it more frequent and effective.

There is also the issue of gerrymandering. Our dissidents are now busily taking notes. Vetoing the budget and forcing the government to close office might prove more potent than Occupy Central as a "weapon of mass destruction". Chances are we will witness some dissident copycat actions here in Hong Kong soon. Fortunately, this was anticipated in the drafting of the Basic Law and we have measures in place to deal with such eventualities.

Our dissidents lament that the lack of party politics and a coalition government have resulted in our chief executive having no control over outcomes in the Legislative Council. Now look at the US; it has mature party politics developed over 200 years, but with the president and members of the Congress elected separately, effective policymaking is by no means guaranteed. Party rivalries and political deadlocks are frequent.

Under our current system, party politics is not a panacea and some kind of political coalition can be achieved with or without it. The central government has always insisted that it is not a system of separation of powers, but an executive-led one. On top of that, Hong Kong is not an independent political entity, but a regional administration under a unitary central government.

No matter how many cosmetic operations we undergo, Hong Kong will never be a replica of the American system. This is the most fundamental underlying factor we have to bear in mind in our political discussion.

While we are at it, let us dive deeper into the idea of party politics. What, for instance, is the status of Hong Kong's People Power party in the country? This is an unsolved problem even for Taiwan, as while the blue Kuomintang still claims to have a national vision for China, the green Democratic Progressive Party does not. And what about the Chinese Communist Party and its role in capitalistic Hong Kong? Shall we allow it to operate here and participate in local elections? This is a big hornet's nest that we had better leave alone, at least for now.

All told, "one country, two systems" is an unprecedented endeavour. There is no clear trail to follow and we will have to find our own way out.

We should always have an open mind, and take a good look around us before we leap. Any careless move might just prove fatal.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development


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This article is now closed to comments

The author is waging an artificial debate against a straw man. Who has claimed in HK that "US is best"? Who is clamouring for a shift in power between central and state/provincial governments? Who in HK wants to "clone" the American 'separation-of-powers'?
Just as democracy in practice can take on many forms (and the US style system is merely one iteration thereof), so too that a call for 'democracy', or at least for democratic reform, doesn't confine one to accepting the US system in its entirety or nothing at all. The author's basic premise is fundamentally flawed. And straw man arguments are lame.
As the author even notes, "Hong Kong will never be a replica of the American system". If that's the case, one wonders why the entire op-ed was devoted to arguing against something that will never happen. However, all straw-man arguments are designed to obscure the real questions, and this piece is no different. The real question is what can be done to evolve from the current status quo in order to develop a system that suits HKers' needs, and satisfies HKers' wishes. Sadly, the author is probably the last person one would want expounding profundities on that one, since he sits on a committee whose entire raison d'etre is to promote and preserve more of the same. To them, Basic Law needs to be followed as rigidly as Newton's First Law, so no wonder any talk of change triggers fear and trepidation. That said, the fear-mongering conclusion is a bit melodramatic.
sudo rm -f cy
I would prefer a parliamentary system to a presidential one, but I'm not sure if that's even possible without rewriting the entire constitution. Not that that's not an option, albeit a more extreme one.
The US is not the only model when it comes to democracy and anyone who claims so is stupid.
Thank you Mr. Lau for making a very good point. It is absurd that whatever doesn't work well in Hong Kong are blamed for the absence of one-man-one-vote. All of us, young and old, should take a step back and ask "what do we really want" before coming out to the streets to demonstrate, yell and occupy things. Time may be better spent quietly at home studying what democracy, be it the US, European or Asian (e.g. Taiwan and Singapore) variety, can or cannot do for us, given our unique history and position.
As a case in point, American democracy isn't working out so well in America either. Hong Kong is as young a city as the state of New York, I agree with the author that it must find its own way to solve problems that are unique to Hong Kong. If party politics get in the way of problem-solving, all parties need to take a step back and try a different approach. For example, Mayor Bloomberg of NYC has been an independent since 2007. Beijing's "one country, two systems" approach to Hong Kong is as good as it gets, there is no limit as to where Hongkongers can take their city under the wings of Beijing.
Lau Nai-keung never addresses why anyone but the collective will of the people as expressed in their votes has a right to govern. Why should kings or cadres have that right, instead? Lau doesn't address that question because he can't do it in HK and elicit anything but laughter and then, upon reflection, fear.
There is no doubt that voters make mistakes from time to time; and the politicians whom they elect are also fallible, but on the whole we are better served when governing is done in the open and revolts can happen at the ballot box within the limits of a liberal democracy rather than through revolution.
As to federalism, Lau completely misunderstands its implications. At this point, federalism would strengthen the center, not weaken it. The State Council would become less of a debating society and more of a national executive.
Take the problem of environmental pollution. China has national environmental laws, but short of catastrophic circumstances, they are enforced by provincial and local governments, who usually have an ownership stake in the biggest polluters. A federal government would allow federal investigators and prosecutors to go anywhere in the country and bring charges against accused violators, who would be go to trial within a federal court system. Now, party secretaries at all levels within a province can frustrate enforcement in both its prosecutorial and judicial aspects, until political capital is spent from Beijing to stop them.


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