Is Hong Kong a flawed democracy? According to the 2012 Democracy Index, we are. The phrase is an oxymoron if ever there was one. But perhaps this is what democracy has to recommend itself: it is always flawed, but rarely catastrophically, unlike dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. You can certainly have successful and enlightened non-democratic regimes, but when they go bad, they can be really bad. We have all heard that old chestnut from Churchill about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others.
The annual index run by the Economist Intelligence Unit divides governments around the world into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. We were previously hybrid but have moved up to flawed democracy.
The improvement was attributed to an increase in the influence of the general public over last year's Legislative Council and chief executive elections. More than half of all legislators are directly elected, the index says, and the chief executive race was more open to influence from public opinion.
But the index warns that Beijing has a heavy influence on the chief executive election and that the city is held back by functional constituencies in the legislature that represent powerful special interest groups. The boroughs are certainly rotten here, but special interests pretty much define most democracies. The EIU is part of the group that owns the conservative weekly The Economist, which is hardly politically neutral.
Taking freedom in the broadest and most general sense, do you seriously think we are less free in Hong Kong than those top "full democracies" like Norway (1), Sweden (2) and Iceland (3), and those lower down like Britain (16) and the United States (21)? Shivers went down my spine whenever I was approached by cops in the US and Canada. Let's just say Asia's finest are a lot more approachable and non-violent.
But the index does point to something important. We in Hong Kong are always looking to Britain and the US as models of democracy. Perhaps countries in northwestern Europe and Scandinavia, given their small size, welfare services and humane policies, offer a much better guide.