Genuine democracy allows the common man's voice to be heard.

Democracy is best way for Hong Kong to avoid a 'bad emperor'

Wilson Leung says that while democracy is indigestible for many, it is the best system for Hong Kong society to progress as a whole

You can't eat democracy." This is the attitude - sometimes expressed, but usually lurking beneath the surface - held by many of those in Hong Kong who are indifferent to the current debate on the chief executive electoral reforms.

This is a vital issue that must be addressed by those who are calling for greater democracy in Hong Kong. Democracy advocates have a responsibility to answer the question posed by the ordinary man or woman on the street: "What does democracy have to do with me?"

One of the most important features of democracy is accountable government. When free and fair elections are in place, those in government know that, unless they are responsive to the needs and wishes of the people, they will be voted out in the next election. Thus, a study in Brazil conducted in 2010 showed that mayors looking for re-election became significantly less corrupt (in other words, less likely to steal from their constituents).

But elections are only part of the equation. Other ingredients are also essential, most notably, human rights (including freedom of the press and freedom of political participation), the rule of law and an independent judiciary. These elements act as a check against the excesses of the government, even one which is elected by a majority.

In the same way that companies in a capitalist system have an economic incentive to keep their customers satisfied, decision-makers in a democratic system have a political incentive to take into account the needs, interests and opinions of most people in society. If they fail to do so, they will be criticised in the press, probed by civil society groups, sued in the courts - or given the ultimate sanction of being ejected from office.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has pointed out that no substantial famine has ever occurred in an independent country with a democratic form of government and a free press. In his words, "A responsive government intervenes to help alleviate hunger." By contrast, Sen cites numerous examples of famines occurring in non-democratic countries, where disastrous government policies went unchecked because there was no opposition party, no free press, and no multiparty elections (for example, the Soviet Union in the 1930s, China's Great Leap Forward in 1958-61, and Sudan in 1998). In a similar vein, political scientists Matthew Baum and David Lake have found that democracies are markedly superior to authoritarian countries in providing public services such as health and education.

Among other things, democratisation in developing countries increased female life expectancy, while enhancing democracy in more developed economies improved female secondary school enrolment rates.

Those who are unenthusiastic about democracy often argue that it produces gridlock. They point to examples such as Thailand or the Philippines (or even the United States), and argue that a dose of dictatorship is what is needed to get things done. That argument may be right - but only to a limited extent. Where there is a benevolent and wise dictator, the system works reasonably well. The government can do things relatively quickly, such as building a new airport or reallocating resources to different sectors of the economy. However, the overriding problem is that if you have a dictator who is incompetent or malevolent (or both), there is little to stop him from adopting catastrophic policies.

This "bad emperor" problem has been examined by political science scholars such as Francis Fukuyama, who observes that imperial China was governed by a centralised bureaucracy grounded in the Confucian moral system. This worked reasonably well when there was a wise and benevolent ruler - but, periodically, the country would be plunged into chaos and unspeakable suffering whenever a terrible monarch emerged. Democratic accountability is the best - and perhaps only - way to curb the bad emperor problem.

It should also be remembered that the pressing question at hand is which political system is best for Hong Kong.

As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his essay, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy", many so-called democracies fail because they lack a liberal system - the rule of law, separation of powers and basic liberties such as the freedom of speech, assembly and property. This causes elected leaders to fall into the same rabbit hole as dictatorships: ignoring constitutional limits on their powers, denying citizens their rights and freedoms, and so on.

Hong Kong, however, is different. We have the rule of law, a robust judiciary, and a mini-constitution which expressly protects the rights and freedoms of its residents. The city also has a highly educated population and keen levels of participation in the (limited) elections which do exist. Indeed, Zakaria (writing in 1997) cited Hong Kong as an example of one of a handful of curiously "liberal non-democracies" in the world.

Therefore, when we ask, "which system would be the best for Hong Kong?", the clear and obvious answer is democracy. Democracy is not only likely to succeed here; it is also the only natural progression for us as a society.

It is true that one cannot eat democracy. But democracy - genuine democracy that offers a free choice of leaders and protection for the rights of citizens - allows the common man's voice to be heard, and thus the best chance of ensuring that he has plenty to eat.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Loud and clear