When is it right for the majority view on Hong Kong political reform to prevail?

C.K. Yeung says while minority interests are rightly protected in a democracy through legislative and non-legislative means, they should, however, not override the majority view after due process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 4:35pm

When is the triumph of a majority view a tyranny and when is it democracy? This question is as pertinent in today's Hong Kong as when Plato raised it more than 2,000 years ago.

Some pan-democratic legislators have vowed to vote against what they dismissed as the "fake" universal suffrage laid down by the National People's Congress, regardless of whether a majority of people wished to "pocket it first". If the majority view is validated by sophisticated opinion polls, is this blatant defiance of majority view morally defensible?

Assuming that 60 per cent of eligible voters favour pocketing the political reform package, with 40 per cent against it, what should the 27 pan-democratic legislators do? As elected representatives, they should heed the majority view of the electorate. But their political survival depends on the votes from their supporters. As the 40 per cent against the "pocket it first" voters are these 27 legislators' power base, they face being dumped by their supporters in the next Legislative Council election if they follow the mainstream majority view. Such a move would require a moral courage that goes against their political survival instinct.

But democracy is not simply about following the views of the majority. In the best tradition of representative government, here in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the West, elected representatives are custodians of the trust of their constituents, who expect them to exercise their best judgment and follow the dictates of their conscience in performing their duties.

The average voter has neither the time nor the knowledge to make the choice that is in the best interest of the people. Legislators should lead, not just follow, their electoral supporters.

Ever since the birth of democracy, a major worry in any democratic system is what John Adams, back in 1788, memorably called "the tyranny of the majority". He was rightly worried that the majority will trample on the interests of the minority, which includes the disadvantaged, as well as racial and sexual minorities. This is what Plato means by his famous dictum that "dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy".

The evolution of a democratic system is a progressive building up of checks and balances to protect the interests of the minority against potential abuses by the majority. As the smallest "minority" is the individual, human rights legislation is installed to safeguard the rights of this smallest entity. Even if all five million voters in Hong Kong want to, say, send a public enemy No 1 to jail, they can't do it as long as their enemy is innocent under the law. This is the cornerstone of liberty.

Another layer of protection for the minorities is a range of non-legislative measures, such as conventions and norms. The filibustering by a minority of legislators to stop the steamroller of the majority legislators is a case in point. Overuse of filibusters is frowned upon by the public and comes with a steep political price. It is a double-edged sword. A protracted filibuster leads to political paralysis, an outcome no one wants. The only way out of a filibustering gridlock is through dialogue, to arrive at a not-quite-happy compromise that both sides accept.

Filibustering therefore not only serves to protect the interest of the minority but is also a mechanism to forge compromise. Only dictatorships can discard political compromise. For a democracy, compromise is its very essence.

When both legislative protections and non-legislative mechanisms fail to appease the minorities, extra-establishment actions provide a last resort. The Occupy movement is an extreme example of a radical form of checks and balances that could allow the minority to thwart the majority. History is full of examples of the triumph of the minority over the majority views.

The diversity of views in modern society provides yet another safeguard against the suppression of minority interest. As the interest and views of a pluralistic community are so intertwined, a cause can win majority support only if it is in line with broadly held universal values. Both Occupiers and anti-Occupiers trumpet their universal values: the former in support of "genuine democracy", and the latter in support of social stability and the rule of law. No political parties and activists can possibly win majority support if their cause defies broadly held values.

All these safeguards ensure that the majority view - thus formed after filtering through multiple layers of pro-minority mechanisms - represents the genuine voice of the people, arrived at through a fair, just and robust democratic process rather than the tyrannical dictates of the majority. This is the bona fide, rational choice of the majority, and the minority should respect it, in the true spirit of democracy.

Political development in Hong Kong has been through the cycle of public debates and open conflicts, from the legal to the extra-legal, from occupation to anti-occupation. The public is now in no doubt as to who stands where, including its own wishes. A mishmash of views has finally filtered down into a clear vision of what the majority wants for its political future. This is real democracy at work.

If the minority - even if it is a significant minority - refuses to respect the clear and informed views of the majority and continues to resort to drastic actions, that would be an anti-democratic tyranny of the minority.

C.K. Yeung is a professor of practice in journalism and communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong