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 : Thursday, 29 September, 2016, 3:50pm

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