Hong Kong needs a democratic system that actually works

Regina Ip says Hong Kong must dedicate itself to finding a political system that truly benefits its people, instead of holding on to an ideal that keeps failing the test of reality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 3:34am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 3:34am

As the curtain began to fall on phase one of the government's consultation on the methods for electing the chief executive in 2017 and for forming the Legislative Council in 2016, political parties, professional bodies, scholars and other activist groups made a mad dash to submit their representations to the government before the May 3 deadline.

Of particular interest were a conference organised by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on April 26 and the views of the Bar Association, published on April 28.

It is interesting to note that at both the conference and at an earlier academic roundtable on the same subject held at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Larry Diamond of Stanford University, a scholar well known for his dedication to spreading democracy around the world, was invited to present his views on why a democratic election for the chief executive of Hong Kong is necessary and feasible in 2017.

Although Diamond was not physically in Hong Kong, the pan-democrats' heavy reliance on his input puts it beyond doubt that he was viewed as a key spokesman in helping them seize the moral and intellectual high ground in Hong Kong's constitutional debate.

As expected, Diamond took as axiomatic that liberal, electoral democracy which guarantees individual rights and freedoms, human dignity, restraint of abuse of power, rule of law, accountability and transparency, and popular sovereignty, is the best form of government. He argued that Hong Kong is ready for democracy whether in terms of per capita GDP, overall human development, class structure, political culture or "state" (that is, government) capacity.

As a former student of Diamond's, it is not for me to enter into an argument with a democratic scholar of his stature over the philosophical and normative justifications for liberal, electoral democracy.

Yet I disagree with him that it is not intellectually interesting or fruitful to debate whether Hong Kong is capable of sustaining democracy. As someone who has "real stakes" in Hong Kong's future, it is important to form a judgment on whether Hong Kong is truly able to sustain democracy.

In theory, Hong Kong satisfies all the textbook requirements of a workable, liberal, electoral democracy. Yet in practice, since the introduction of direct elections to the Legislative Council in 1991, there has, with few exceptions, been little appreciable improvement in the quality of elected members who fill the seats, whether in the pro-establishment or pan-democratic camp.

Few of the elite are willing to make the sacrifice in terms of opportunity cost, loss of privacy and risk of personal attacks to take the plunge into the political cauldron. Indeed, there are few elected representatives with global perspectives or the knowledge, skills and competence necessary for running a sophisticated city like Hong Kong.

Our legislature is so preoccupied with calls to investigate or for heads to roll whenever something goes wrong that it is turning itself into what Francis Fukuyama calls a "vetocracy". Sometimes it appears the sole mission of some legislators is to obstruct and destabilise the government, with little regard for whether such action would actually solve problems or benefit Hong Kong.

As many of the participants in a recent public hearing on the establishment of a new innovation and technology bureau noted, in the past 20 years, Hong Kong has lost its patina as a dynamic economy. The city seems to have lost its ability to self-govern and innovate as it becomes increasingly embroiled in political struggles.

Thus, it is imperative for those of us who have built our homes in Hong Kong to ask what sort of political arrangement would actually work, in a way that will increase our overall happiness and wealth, fall within the Basic Law and is acceptable to Beijing.

As for the mass mobilisation movement "Occupy Central with Love and Peace", which is clearly designed to put pressure on Beijing, as Diamond noted, it is a risky strategy. It would backfire on the organisers if the situation spun out of control. It could push authorities in Beijing to dig in their heels if the movement is perceived as a direct confrontation and, worse still, inspired by "foreign forces".

Most importantly, in Diamond's own words, a social protest would be more effective if it demonstrated commitment to the "one country" aspect. That, unfortunately, is sadly lacking.

Diamond also hit the nail on the head when he said that the obstacle to Hong Kong's realisation of democracy derives from "the calculations, concerns and insecurity of Beijing".

Again, that's one crucial aspect that democracy advocates in Hong Kong have totally failed to take into account, when participants in the so-called Deliberation Day on Tuesday voted for three constitutional reform proposals which display, in the eyes of Beijing, a flagrant disregard of the Basic Law.

As Diamond urged, a political response is required to resolve what is basically a political argument. The thinking moderates in the pan-dem camp should stop allowing kids to take the centre stage and put on their thinking caps to engage in dialogue with Beijing to address their concerns.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party