Why Hong Kong does not need more democracy right now
- The chaos and instability unleashed by the quest for universal suffrage, the gridlock in the legislature and the government’s declining efficacy support a halt in the expansion of democracy
Ever since the future of postcolonial Hong Kong became an issue in the early 1980s, the quest for universal suffrage, narrowly equated with democracy, has in some quarters become the be all and end all of the “one country, two systems” project.
Some democracy advocates argue that the answer to Hong Kong’s democratic convulsions is more democracy. Yet the chaos and instability unleashed by the quest for universal suffrage, coupled with the gridlock in the legislature, and the government’s declining efficacy, lend strong support to the opposing view that the situation in Hong Kong calls for a halt rather than an advancement in the expansion of suffrage.
In comparison, Hong Kong’s democratic stirrings in the 1980s did not emanate from the masses. A new, representative model was superimposed by the departing colonial masters, under the pretext of protecting human rights, but more with a view to curbing the potentially sweeping powers of the Chinese state.
Rally in Hong Kong to thank US for supporting the Human Rights and Democracy Act
Such commands on Hong Kong were written into US laws, notwithstanding that the US itself took 144 years after its independence to grant women the right to vote, and 189 years to grant its black people an uninhibited right to vote with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1983 by the Reagan administration signals a clear shift in US foreign policy to focus on fostering democratic change in communist and non-communist “authoritarian” countries. Yet chronicles of American efforts to democratise show that waves of democratisation in many parts of the world have been interrupted or reversed.
Many of the newly formed democracies which have implemented universal suffrage only satisfy the formal or minimalist requirements of democracies.
Many such countries have not been able to maintain economic growth, guarantee the protection of individual rights and freedoms, stamp out corruption, ensure social justice or simply give their people a better life. They have failed miserably on the test of performance legitimacy.
While championing democratisation abroad, the US has consistently turned a blind eye to the fact that not all countries or territories are as exceptionally endowed with all the right conditions for a flourishing democracy as itself. Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy, unlike democracy in the US, was not founded by elites firmly committed to democratic ideals.
It was imposed top-down, and the elites, which in Hong Kong’s plutocratic society usually take the shape of well-heeled tycoons and professionals, soon found the opportunity costs of democratic politics not worth their labours. As the result, with few exceptions, Hong Kong’s elites have not taken part in competitive elections.
A democracy cannot function effectively to give people hope if opposing camps cannot work together to solve problems and deliver change. Hong Kong’s democracy advocates are bound to fail if what they seek is political change which runs counter to China’s constitution and national policies. The recourse to violence and external pressure to enforce change would only provoke a sharp response, which could spell the untimely demise of Hong Kong’s fragile democracy.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party