Nelson Mandela
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Baby steps towards democracy

Mass demonstrations have played a central role in the political evolution of many totalitarian states. I lived in two that were convulsed by public protests and went on to become democratic role models: South Africa and Taiwan. Although they are very different from Hong Kong, each offers similar, yet unique, experiences which could help understand the significance of the July 1 march.

Perhaps their greatest contrast with Hong Kong was that South Africa and Taiwan had charismatic leaders with consummate political skills who changed the system from within. Frederick de Klerk and Lee Teng-hui differed in their motives, however. Mr De Klerk was more representative of the elite, which recognised the inevitability of universal suffrage yet thought it could stage-manage the democratisation process to guarantee its place in the new order. Mr Lee empathised with the masses, and was determined that the playing field be levelled so that native Taiwanese could become masters of their own destiny. That meant strengthening the state at the expense of the party.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Mr De Klerk seemed confident that his willingness to share power would soothe the masses and stem the tide of street protests which had gripped South Africa throughout the late 1980s. He was wrong. With Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990, the proverbial genie was out of the bottle. The mass marches continued throughout the transition period until Mr Mandela was voted into office in 1994.

Public protests did not overwhelm Mr Lee; in fact, they served his purpose. Since taking office on the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988, he had been struggling with the party's old guard. Mass marches buttressed his position, because they were almost always aimed at his political opponents. Their themes, strangely enough, seemed to dovetail with his objectives, such as the one in the early 1990s that called for the former military chief, Hau Pei-tsun, to step down as premier.

The key point is that in both cases the marches fitted into an overall game plan directed, or at least encouraged, by coherent political movements. By comparison, Hong Kong is still taking baby steps. Last year's marchers were motivated by anger. This year, it was pride. The focus may have been more clearly political, but it was still pretty simplistic. Could next year's be organised along more thoughtful, strategic lines? Given the lack of a Mandela among the opposition, it seems unlikely. Coming up with a common slogan could be even tougher after the strain of the Legislative Council election.

Then there is the view from above to consider. It is possible that someone within the Communist Party could use the marches to emerge as a great reformer, someone who can convince China's elite that democratic change is in its own interests and should be allowed to run ahead in Hong Kong rather than being left to foment dissent. But at this stage of the mainland's development, with at least 500 million people mired in poverty and generally angrier at their local officials than Hongkongers could ever be at Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, it seems unrealistic to hold out hope. There is too great a risk of a spark starting a prairie fire.

That does not mean the marches will necessarily be futile if they continue as a tradition. In my experience from South Africa and Taiwan, it really depends on the development of party politics. It will be interesting to see which parties are able to tap into the emotions of the marchers, and how pragmatically they play it to their advantage. The era of mass-market politics in Hong Kong may have just begun.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's special projects editor