• Thu
  • Dec 18, 2014
  • Updated: 2:01pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Given its own record, the West is in no position to preach about democracy

Jean-Pierre Lehmann says given the West's own inglorious path towards democracy, its leaders should stop preaching to China and the rest of the world, and instead humbly engage Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 3:24am

In writing this at a time of acute tension and bearing in mind a previous article I wrote on the opium wars and the West's cheek in admonishing China to be a "responsible stakeholder", I am aware that I am entering a minefield and risk being misinterpreted.

I am not anti-British, nor do I believe the Chinese should enjoy carte blanche in bullying just because we did. As a Westerner, what makes me incandescent is our sanctimonious hypocritical smugness, especially in preaching democracy to the planet, when in fact we have only fairly recently begun practising it ourselves - nor did we extend it to others.

It is only in the last quarter of a century, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, that most Western countries have become democratic. Even among the longer established democracies, as opposed to the more recent democracies in transition, the actual extent of the democratic process was qualified. For decades, women were barred from participating in political life. When I lived in the US in the 1960s, a century after the civil war and the abolition of slavery, most African Americans were disenfranchised either officially or by surreptitious means. Contrary to the image we seek to project about "Western values", we have much more to be ashamed of than to be proud of with respect to our political histories.

While democracy may have been grudgingly extended to the masses at home, this was emphatically not the case in respect of those living under our aegis abroad. If one takes the three major liberal imperialist powers - Britain, France and the US (one could add as a fourth the Netherlands) - democracy was emphatically not for export. There was no democracy - nor even any talk of democracy - in Britain's or France's extensive colonies in Asia or Africa. "Dissidents", such as Gandhi, Nehru and others, were put in jail.

America's alleged global quest for democracy is also of relatively recent vintage, when one remembers, to cite only two examples of many, the orchestrated coup (in connivance with Britain) against the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and, just 20 years later, the coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende in Chile. Both democracies were succeeded by Western-imposed bloody dictatorships: the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile.

In light of the quite violent and bloody turbulence in the Middle East and North Africa, no serious historian could ever suggest that these countries had been groomed for democracy by their imperial "protectors" - the Western-subjugated countries of the Levant were referred to as "protectorates".

So while Asia contains two out of three of the world's biggest democracies - India and more recently Indonesia - this was not fostered by their respective British and Dutch overlords during colonial times. While making the general point that the Western powers were hardly paragons - to put it mildly - of democratic governance, we might ask: what about Hong Kong?

There is an undoubted degree of sympathy in Hong Kong for Britain and even some nostalgia. During demonstrations in Victoria Park, one can be struck by the number of Union Jacks on display. But unlike the Gibraltarians and the Falklanders, the people of Hong Kong were never given the option of expressing their preferences by referendum.

Britain ruled Hong Kong for a century and a half, from 1842 to 1997. There was no democracy in Hong Kong at any stage. Indeed, Britain practised in Hong Kong - as it did in other colonies - racial discrimination, barring ethnic Chinese from entry (except as servants) to certain establishments and residential properties. As recently as 1904, the colonial government passed the Peak District Reservation Ordinance, which barred Chinese from residing in certain parts of Victoria Peak that were reserved for whites. Similar ordinances were regularly passed; they were not lifted until after the second world war, that is, after the Japanese invasion and occupation of Hong Kong.

In recent decades, Britain's rule of Hong Kong can no doubt be deemed to have been benign and constructive. Hongkongers are especially attached to the rule of law that is without doubt a British legacy.

But even during the decades of "enlightened rule", there was no whisper of democracy. Hongkongers are currently demanding their right to elect their chief executive. This would contrast with the practice during the colonial years when Hongkongers had absolutely no say on who would be appointed their governor. There was no list from which they could choose.

Britain did try to guarantee the rights of Hongkongers in the course of the negotiations with China. In his final speech, the last governor, Chris Patten, tearfully stated: "I am the 28th governor, the last governor … now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong." Perhaps Britain could have thought of this before.

Everyone must wish Hongkongers the greatest possible happiness and dignity. But what is emphatically not helpful is for the West to sermonise the Chinese à la "do as we say, not as we did".

It is going to be difficult to accommodate China's rise to great power status. It has always been the case that rising great powers cause turbulence. But if the West could truly engage in constructive conversation with the Chinese and display humility rather than sanctimonious arrogance, this would be an important positive step in the right direction.

There are lessons to be drawn from Hong Kong.

Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD, Switzerland, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong and NIIT University in Neemrana, Rajasthan


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

John Adams
I fully agree!
This is an excellent article by Prof Lehmann. Every word hits hard and true to the mark.
As a long-term UK resident in HK for over 30 years working full-time in China, I can vouch for the fact the UK did much too little and certainly much too late to introduce even the slightest vestige of democracy into HK pre-1997 ( and what little it did do was just smoke and mirrors).
And as for the USA's recent record :
- invading other countries on (knowingly) false pretenses
- undermining democratically-elected governments when they happen not to support the USA.
- supporting (often-brutal) dictatorships when they do happen to support the USA
- spying on the world including the USA's allies
- leaving total civil strife and chaos in every country which the USA has invaded....
...and so the list goes on ad nauseum.
The USA does not have a leg to stand on, neither do the UK and France based on their colonial histories.
And THESE are the role-models our enthusiastic but badly-misguided young voters (e.g. the Scholarship movement) look to !?
If so , they urgently need to apply their 'scholarship' to reading and thinking about modern world history before they even think of occupying Central.
I Gandhi
The West is in no position to preach about democracy especially the Anglos which is the most sinister and perfidious. Britain has an unelected house of lords and a monarchy which is a joke and a carbuncle. It is a mockery of a democracy. The US had a President who although lost the popular vote but manage to steal the election.
Rebutting facts with what-ifs is the mark of a scoundrel. What if China...? There is no Chinese military base or soldier on foreign soil. You're simply a knee-jerk China hater.
Rises and declines of empires and nations are the unvarying course of history untrimmed. Democracies are now at a crossroads because they are well on the down leg of a cycle that began its ascent with the great American Republic in 1776. Why the decline now? Environment and competitors in other political economies have outstripped democracy practitioners' rigid dogmas, which confines neo-liberals, right wing Nazis and racists fighting for political survival in the caged arena of populist democracy.
But the death of empires, Britannia and Americana, won't prevent the glorious Western Civilization soldiering on like the Chinese one before it centuries ago. Asians have learned and will continue to be inspired by gifts from the West: Greek math, concepts about wealth of nations, the science of Newton, Einstein and the music of Beethoven and Wagner. Observing only one human civilization as proclaimed by EU's wordless "Alle Menschen werden Brueder" anthem is the best chance for humans to avoid the extinction of punctuated equilibrium.
Yours truly admires and takes great joy in Western culture and wisdom. However, he won't accept the mumbo jumbo of Democracy Cult and the missionary zeal of its followers who try to jam down our throat with universal values and self-destructive populism.
There is a difference between wanting China to listen and expecting them to simply follow EVERY request from HK. No government can accommodate that. In addition, I don't think some of those Legco members can represent the majority of HKers given their ridiculous uncivilized behaviors. Shameful.
The point of this article was given in the subheading: "Jean-Pierre Lehmann says given the West's own inglorious path towards democracy, its leaders should stop preaching to China and the rest of the world, and instead humbly engage Beijing". The author is NOT arguing China should behave like 19th century colonial powers, nor that the West should condone it. Rather, the author is saying that INSTEAD OF ARROGANTLY PREACHING its so-called liberal / western values, it could HUMBLY ENGAGE with authoritarian countries instead (given its own spotted record on human rights / democracy).
A very good article.
It's about facts and history of mankind, the radicals comment showed that they are still living in denial. Ironic for them to expect the HK Government to listen and accept their unrealistic demand.
How About
For this, Professor Lehmann, the humanity thanks you!
"Democracy" despite what Socrates opined as inherently transient, is one arm of the blivet the west had been rhetorically peddling so buyers beware, and we very much look forward to hear your views on the need of a new financial system defusing the debt and growth bubbles, and a new world order in a multi-polar world.
What a ridiculous position. Firstly, let me note that Mr Lehmann is a shockingly bad writer. There is no rhyme or reason to the structure of the above. Even writing a decent paragraph is apparently too much to ask for, and the whole convoluted attempt at reasoning is hard to get through. At best, this piece is over-generalising and drawing sweeping conclusions from cherry-picking pieces of history left and right without a shred of empirical evidence or even just a theoretical basis.

That aside, Mr Lehmann's point appears to simply because countries in the (mostly distant) past might have not practiced the same modern standards they adhere to now, they have no right to defend, let alone promore, these standards.

This is absurd and denies any notion of progress. Has it occurred to Mr Lehmann that perhaps some countries arrived at their current set of (democratic) institutions and values through a long historical process, with many set-backs and mistakes along the way, from which perhaps something can be learnt?

And what else that has been widespread/accepted in the past that we should therefore not be allowed to judge or fight against now? Slavery? Mercantilism? Colonialism? Child labour?

If China wants to conquer (say) Vietnam and ship the Vietnamese off as slaves to build railroads in Africa, that is fine, because 300 years ago, that is what the Brits and Dutch did as well?

At its core, Mr Lehmann's position is nothing short of nihilistic.
Exploitation? Yes, there must have been exploitation. We were once exploited by the British too but we appreciated the good deeds that they did for HK as well. China is a communist country no matter you like it or not so comparing it to non-communist countries is simply unrealistic. Instead of focusing on exploitation, what about the benefits/privileges that HKers received from China? To be fair, we need to look at both sides of the story. Will Occupy Central or protesting everyday make HK a better place?
Excellent article.



SCMP.com Account