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  • Sep 24, 2014
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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

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53caf97b-cf7c-4858-b6c8-4c530a320968
Talking to Hong Kongers here in LA, the sense you get is that the political movement is becoming too conflated with the rise of inequality in HK. Come to the US or UK or any other vaunted democracy and see how the process has degenerated into temporary pay off solutions made with borrowed money with politicians more concerned about maintaining enough temporary populist measures to save their own political careers rather than affecting real change.
I want to thank Jean-Pierre Lehmann for writing this article, as his perspective is something I can find frequently in the HK expats around northern and southern California but seem to be woefully underrepresented outside of the diaspora.
CatherineOhlLaw
Professor Lehmann says it very well and very rightly. But most of all, if this Chinese state of things is suitable/agreeable/acceptable to a few or a majority of Chinese is entirely their own business and should therefore be entirely respected.
What is not acceptable is the imposition of this Chinese order onto other nations, as in the Tibetan nation ( who are hounded the world around), the Mongolian nation ( Outer Mongolia ,its very name showing that it is just a matter of time before they get "swallowed, and they are well aware of it ) Vietnam (the lucky ones that got away ) , the Uighurs ( who are slowly but surely turning into another terrorist state). And lets not even mention the other ethnic minorities who might have wanted to be unto their own ( there are more Miaos than Swiss, who is to say they can't be a country ?) that is even beyond the entirely culturaly brainwashed comprehension of any average Chinese, Hongkongese or Taiwanese. Cultural imperialism lives, but as long as all these peoples have their Chinese bowl of rice, they had better shut up , and be silent in Mandarin !
whymak
Impala:
You're much dumber than I thought with your commentary. What kind of gibberish is this: "... cherry picking history.. empirical evidence.. theory.."?
By virtue of its complexity and randomness, history could at best be described scientifically as a sample realization of a random process, in which the states at a particular time (an index for the process) cannot be completely specified and/or enumerated.
Sounds like a mouthful? I figure you don't the scientific training to understand this. So refer to my multiple rebuttals in plain English to different readers, including yours, posted below.
Before you criticize Jean-Pierre, brush up your fairly average English skills. Professor Lehmann probably speaks and writes in at least 4 languages. I doubt if you could carry on a simple conversation in Putonghua.
whymak
gunzy:
You're right. Some middle class acquaintances of mine disposed their assets in fire sales during 1967 and the run-up to 1997 and emigrated to Canada. Their savings didn't go far enough. Their skill sets don't match up to the requirements of their newly adopted country. Their old jobs in HK went to someone else.
Today, many barely eke out a modest living 了此殘生 in a culturally alienated land, to which they could not acclimate.
Lack of freedom in HK is sheer Western propaganda, which has claimed brainwashed victims like reader kctony, who could only relate his own sob story of insults by the Red Guards when compared to the goodness of the British Empire. He never realizes that great leaders like Deng Xiaoping had to endure extreme hardships and survived to lead our country to new heights.
How did these self-hate Chinese become this way? Your guess is as good as mine. They deny that the China phoenix has risen from the ashes. They love to proselytize the Democracy Cult while demonizing all things Chinese as Satanic.
gunzy
Well, I'm not one to sing praises about the government up north, however they have been uncharacteristically patient with HK.
.
Canada is a different life, different struggles, different kinds of glass ceilings. Ultimately it is a "better the devil you know" kind of situation. The country taught me many things that I wish HK would incorporate (manners and ice hockey come to mind), but you can't beat the food, the convenience, the transportation, the dynamism that is HK.
whymak
kctony, scmpbeijing:
You're two of the dumbest frequent writers to SCMP columns.
Pew, the preeminent pollster, found 86% of Chinese approve Beijing government. By contrast, only 12% of Americans approve the US Congress. No democracy comes with a smidgeon over 50% rating. Among peers, no pollster ranks anywhere as high as Pew in methodology and objectivity.
Of course, it is important to understand where China's leadership has succeeded, and when or how it might fail in future.
In a political economy, perception and satisfaction count the most at the margin. From a nation of 850 million living at subsistence to the rank of a middle income one with 1.4 billion, China has achieved the impossible in 1 1/2 generations. This management feat can be explained by neo-classical growth theory. But double digit growth with (production) factors and efficiency (TFP) could not be sustained indefinitely. Can Chinese leaders maintain this high level mandate as "growth convergence" becomes a reality?
As a nation prospers, more of its citizens will seek economic and cultural opportunities beyond the confines of its borders. More than a million strong -- 4.4% Taiwanese, live in China. If one looks at rich smaller nations, one finds the domicile RATE in other countries much higher than mainlanders.
I call you dumb because you have always used static, personal anecdotes to badmouth China with no regard to the dynamics of demographics and political economy.
kctony
Yes, I sound unpatriotic because I want my country to prosper. But its progress is slower than I anticipate.
My friends & relatives call me dumbest guy in HK. Instead of chasing that little white ball with them, I chose to come to West Africa and help out my countrymen, 90% mainlanders, with no pay. I will be leaving Angola and heading to ****ia. A patriot I consider myself but the authorities certainly didn't think so.
kongshan2047
Here in HK we have freedom without democracy. Most people would agree that this system has thus far served us relatively well in terms of quality of life and economic development. Similarly, Singapore has also done relatively well despite being perceived as relatively authoritarian in the region. The uniqueness of these two societies is that they are both ethnic-Chinese dominant society and former British colonies. Many scholars have said for a long time that British system and Chinese work ethic are perhaps one of the best combinations, and even Lee Kuan Yew himself agrees. Whether the relative success of these two places can be replicated elsewhere is a different matter.
How About
Words are indeed cheap, so I invite all those interested to defend the principles of the west read up here by John www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/11/on-israel-ukraine-and-truth/ and by Noam www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175863/, then come back and properly argue your case, and about the conducts of the new world.
.
53b9653c-1958-4e64-8569-74420a320969
Thank you, Professor Lehmann. Your message well hits the crux of the matter.

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