The View

Hong Kong in danger of political deadlock over choice of Chief Executive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2015, 8:37am

There are three key questions for democracy in Hong Kong.

First, is our city ready for it since our economy is well advanced and our citizens well educated? Second, will democracy consolidate or collapse after it is introduced, and what happens afterwards? And third, will democracy compromise or promote our future economic growth?

In 1959, Harvard sociologist Seymour M. Lipset advanced the “modernization hypothesis” that urbanization, industrialization, higher education, and the increasing complexity of society that followed economic growth would foster conditions conducive to the gradual emergence of a democratic polity.

Although this hypothesis has been criticized for extrapolating the European historical experience to modern developing nations, it has been a cornerstone of postwar foreign policy in the West. It has also proved to be incredibly enduring because of the strong positive correlation between per capita income and democracy.

In 1966, Harvard Marxist scholar Barrington Moore Jr. challenged the “modernization hypothesis” with three different political paths to economic modernization. First, if landlords were not too oppressive, the bourgeoisie would prevail and liberal democracy in a capitalist economy would emerge, as seen in Britain, France and the US.

Second, if landlords were fairly oppressive and the bourgeoisie weak, then fascism would emerge, as seen in Germany and Japan. And third, if the landlords were extremely oppressive and the bourgeoisie extremely weak, then economic modernization would only be possible through a peasant revolution led by the communist party, as seen in Russia and China.

Comparing these models to Hong Kong today, we should be able to attain democracy without difficulty and peacefully. The socioeconomic conditions are present.

But democracy can also collapse, as seen in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. This phenomenon has been explained not by socioeconomic structures, but by behavioural models.

In their 1978 study, Yale political scientists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan found the collapse of democracy was determined by specific actions taken by pro- and anti-democracy actors in their competition for power. The winners were those who commanded the loyalty of their coalition of supporters.

Linz also compared presidential and parliamentary democracies. When there are disagreements in the latter and the prime minister loses his majority, they can be resolved by negotiating a new governing coalition or holding a new election. But in presidential democracies, there is no such straightforward mechanism and so the military may intervene to resolve things.

For many years, the US was the exception to this rule. Linz argued in 1990 that American political parties were unique because they were not ideologically disciplined. This meant they were able to seek compromise and accommodation when differences arose. Today that no longer seems to be the case.

Hong Kong may not be a democracy yet, but its politics has all the attributes of this sickness of Western democracies. Both the pan-democrats and the establishment are coalitions of many diverse, vocal minority interests, which hold rigid views or have strong vested interests and are not prepared to change.

When a society falls victim to political conflict and public indecision, its economy necessarily suffers because critical policy decisions cannot be made.

In 2004, Harvard economist Robert Barro found a startling result. He plotted the unexplained part of the growth rate of an economy (after holding constant other explanatory variables) against the extent of democratic development in a country, and found an inverted-U shape.

This suggests greater democracy enhances economic growth at low levels of political freedom but depresses growth when moderate levels are attained. The findings are consistent with Lipset’s hypothesis at the early stages of modernization, and with Linz’s hypothesis that when minorities are voted into power, political divisiveness will slow down economic growth.

Hong Kong may become stuck in a permanent political deadlock if we fail to elect a Chief Executive through universal suffrage. This may well be the only foreseeable electoral reform that holds out some promise of changing our politics from its current state.

Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong