Hong Kong democracy advocates need a reality check

Tom Plate is sorry that the opportunity for a historic one-man, one-vote election in Hong Kong - a first for China - is being squandered on the political nihilism of the pan-democrats

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 5:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 5:14pm

At least in the first phase of the 21st century, widely viewed as the Asian Century, all major engagements with China will prove of high significance. And the experience of Hong Kong, as part of China, may well prove the most significant of all. If its continuing process of integration - begun in 1997 when the curtain finally came down on British colonialism in Asia - proceeds apace, with goodwill and common sense on all sides, a most helpful precedent will have been established for all to observe.

But should Hong Kong's reintegration go off the rails of reason, the shock effect will be felt worldwide. The stakes, really, are no less than this.

The latest controversy in the political integration saga revolves around proposed rules and procedures governing the 2017 election of the chief executive via a one-person, one-vote poll. This gesture towards democracy in itself represents a departure for Beijing, and it is almost impossible to overstate its significance.

But a substantial portion of Hong Kong - the "democracy advocates" - takes a bleak view: that the government's political reform blueprint is nothing more than a cynical gesture from Beijing of towering insignificance. They do accept that the plenary election would be technically "democratic" - but only superficially, deceptively.

They claim to locate the devil in the details of the nominating procedure itself, which strikes them as rigged to produce only bland and lame candidates, rendering the electorate stymied from voting for real change - or (perhaps more to the point) for one of their own candidates.

In response, the local government (squeezed between stern critics and wary Beijing) points out that the new blueprint is in fact a responsive loosening of the original plan that triggered the Occupy protest last autumn. But the pro-democracy constituency is unmoved, and in fact has enough votes in the Legislative Council to prevent the necessary approvals next month. This would derail the first direct-democracy election of this magnitude in China in anyone's memory.

The pro-democracy critique of the admittedly complex nominating process reaches its dour negative conclusion based solely on speculative reasoning. It assumes that the 1,200-member nominating body, arguably roughly reflective of Hong Kong's sectoral sociology, will be impervious to reasoned argument about the public good, and that the whole schemata will prove nothing more than a grand puppet show, strings pulled by Beijing.

In point of fact, to virtually any argument offered by anyone proposing to go forward with the first-ever direct election, even as the government itself knows its plan comes up short of utopia, the pro-democracy coalition is deaf-eared. Some members even walked out of the government's unveiling last month.

Rudeness and indifference to the give-and-take of public dialogue is hardly the monopoly of so-called democracy advocates, of course; but in the instance of Hong Kong, it is dispiriting. Rejectionist politics is not brave; it is cowardly. It is a failure to engage and respect other views. Knowing full well that this is the final offer for the unprecedented chief executive election involving an estimated five million voters, this rejectionism is a form of political nihilism. It is dangerous.

If political utopia is impossible to achieve, then what is the honourable way forward? In the United States, for example, the number of citizens here who are actually deluded enough to believe that our American democracy is anything other than a very flawed system could be gathered into the Legco chamber with enough room left over for a parade of elephants.

And, yes, sometimes we despair: in 2000, our "democratic" system actually authorised a candidate to move into the White House with fewer aggregate votes than his opponent.

So much - one might say - for one person, one vote. And in the past few years, the political performance of the US Congress has roughly rivalled in quality that of the Soviet Duma.

And, yet, at my end of the Pacific Ocean, truly concerned and sincere citizen reformers push forward to make our system less imperfect, with voting reforms or new legislation that sometimes even trigger glimmers of optimism.

Rejectionism of the middle ground in politics is always and forever a sign of extremism. It is neither noble nor helpful. It resembles the Tea Party here and everywhere: when the near-know-nothings think they know everything, you know that the political going is about to get bumpy.

Marvellous Hong Kong deserves a better fate that this. It should go forward with the less-than-perfect election blueprint, see how it works on the basis of its actual performance, and make needed changes on the basis of actual evidence.

After all, this won't be the last such direct election, right? But to go forward, there has to be a first one. So this is Hong Kong's chance. Let not the good be sacrificed on the altar of the ideal, which is to be found nowhere on this planet anyhow. And - making a wild guess - never will be.

Professor Tom Plate, the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is the author of In the Middle of China's Future. He is currently completing work on the third edition of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, in the Giants of Asia series