Democracy is not simply a yes-or-no vote, in Hong Kong or elsewhere

Alice Wu hopes the recent fervour for new think tanks in Hong Kong will encourage deeper reflection on our policies, thus contributing to our search for meaningful solutions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 9:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 9:31am

Ever since Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras prematurely declared his government's bailout referendum a "victory of democracy", I have been struck by how far politicians are willing to mangle the idea of democracy. The demos were, in fact, being played for fools, and it won't be the last time. It was no "victory" for the people, not by a long shot - aren't they now being forced to accept the very thing they voted "no" to, and on even harsher terms?

Democracy by referendum doesn't achieve much. Real-world problems are complex and are rarely resolved by yes/no or even multiple-choice solutions. People power - demos-cracy - isn't about wishing away debt, economic woes and social problems. We don't need to look at the Greek debt crisis to realise that we, too, have been chasing after the same illusory, either/or fixes.

The solutions vary, depending on who or what we blame for our political rut. It's someone else's incompetence. It's our "divisive" political culture. It's the "toxic" legislative-executive relationship. It's our lack of "genuine" universal suffrage, or lack of "genuine" democracy. It's our sensational news media. It could be our government's lack of vision, political will, and/or power. Or it could be our government having too much unchecked power. It's the pro-establishment's fault or the pan-democrats', the radicals' or the chief executive's, or Beijing's or God's.

At the end of the day, neither our preferences nor democracy can make our problems go away. They're not a matter of consumer choices and we can't vote them away. The trouble is, we suffer from a genuine lack of workable alternatives, as our failed debates on constitution reform have shown.

And perhaps that is a reason for what seems to be a renewed interest in think tanks lately. It's hard to believe that Hong Kong think tanks were considered a relatively "new phenomenon" in the 1990s. And now, we have three more being added to what has been described as "a crowded field".

How "crowded" the field is, is a matter of opinion. According to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme at the University of Pennsylvania, there were 6,826 think tanks in the world in 2013. Asia had 1,201, and adding another three to Hong Kong's 30 doesn't seem too "crowded".

Of course, this is not a numbers game - having more think thanks does not necessarily mean we'll be any better at bridging the knowledge and policymaking divide.

Hong Kong's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa - who has launched his own think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation - talked about the importance of policy standards when he was still in office in 2004. Ronny Tong Ka-wah gave up his Legislative Council seat to start Path to Democracy because he was exasperated by the polarisation of this city's politics. Meanwhile, Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is planning to launch his Advocacy group next year to try to facilitate a more community-led and community-engaged way of influencing policymaking.

Some may see their enthusiasm as just more attempts by politicians to extend their political life, or a way to dress up their campaign offices; it's true we have plenty of those already. Time will tell whether any of these new think tanks will encourage deeper reflection on public policies and offer more than just knee-jerk reactions.

Can they make what excites policy wonks relevant to non-wonks, inject long-term thinking and wider perspectives into our political debates, translate ivory-tower jargons into everyday language the public can relate to, and get the public out of the current slogan-shouting approach to civic participation? If they succeed, they would affect more than just policymaking. It would give us a more democratic society, where there are alternatives for constructive and proactive ways of civic participation.

If these would-be think tanks do it right, they can do more than bridge policy and knowledge; they may even bridge politics and knowledge in society.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA