What do protests around the world say about the value of democracy?

Hong Kong may not have universal suffrage but many states that do would kill for its institutions, inherent freedoms and standards of governance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 2013, 3:25am

"I decided to come because I can't stand the corruption in Brazil. Here there is no money for hospitals and schools, but yes for stadiums," an angry Adriana da Silva, a first-time protester in a Sao Paulo demonstration, told CNN last month.

In Hong Kong, which has excellent hospitals and high levels of education - but people complain that there are no decent stadiums - first-time July 1 protester, Josephine Yam, 17, had very different reasons for taking to the streets.

"There's no genuine democracy here as there is no universal adult suffrage," Yam said. "I had to show where I stand."

Some 18,000 kilometres apart, da Silva's and Yam's concerns are worlds apart, as are their ideas of empowerment. Elections, which Yam sees as "genuine democracy", are old hat for da Silva in a country that returned to democracy in the 1980s.

The young Brazilian - like hundreds of thousands who have railed on the streets of Brazil, Turkey and Egypt against their democratically elected governments - probably also has a very different take on what "genuine democracy" looks and feels like.

Over the years, democracy has come to be seen as the freest and the most efficient form of governance, its virtues accepted as a given. Hence Hong Kong's quest for democracy would seem a logical extension of the city's free spirit and clinical efficiency. Yet democracy is actually far less popular than popularly believed, and not always as effective as it is made out to be.

In fact, if democracy were to run in an election, it would have a hard time winning. Just over half (52 per cent) of the 82,000 citizens the world over interviewed in the Global Barometer Survey on attitudes to democracy supported it. And, democracy would definitely never win a re-election. On average, fewer than half (46 per cent) of adults interviewed across 55 countries said they were satisfied with democracy's performance.

The reason for this unpopularity, as Joshua Kurlantzick observes in his recent book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, is that it has not brought prosperity, but more corruption and disorder in many newly democratised societies. "Disillusionment with democracy's political processes and with democratically elected leaders has exploded in recent years, as they have seemed unable to develop effective solutions for global and local economic crises," Kurlantzick says. He says nearly half the military coups in developing nations in the past 20 years have enjoyed the backing of the middle class, such as in Thailand - and currently in Egypt.

But Hong Kong's middle class is fixated on elections and fuming at the lack of a clear plan to reach the goal of directly electing the chief executive by 2017. Getting that holy grail of elections would still be the first step towards democracy, not the whole deal.

In political science literature, free elections merely meet the requirement of "formal", or "procedural", democracy. The second, and much more difficult, step is to transform a "procedural" democracy into one that is "substantive". That requires, in addition to elections, many other political rights and civil liberties such as free media, an independent judiciary, organisational rights and good governance.

It is on these counts that many of the democracies are seen to be failing, unable to offer much beyond elections. The institutions and freedoms that make elections meaningful are either poorly developed or have been hollowed out by such things as corruption, absence of the rule of law and closet authoritarianism, making democracy largely ceremonial - as Turkish demonstrators would testify.

The Economist Intelligence Unit finds that democracy has deteriorated in 48 of the 167 countries it reviewed. Separately, Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation concluded that the number of "highly defective democracies" doubled between 2006 and 2010. Based on parameters such as democratic institutions and rule of law, it branded 53 of the 128 democracies it studied as defective.

These democracies have what Yam wants - elections - but not much else. What makes Hong Kong's democracy struggle unique is that it lacks procedural democracy but shows qualities that are associated with substantive democracy. Many democracies would kill for Hong Kong's institutions, freedoms and standards of governance, all of which it manages to maintain without being democratic on paper.

"Hong Kong is quite an anomaly in terms of the degree of protections for civil liberties and robust rule of law absent of democratic elections. There aren't very many other places in the world like that," says Sarah Cook, senior research analyst at US-based advocacy group Freedom House.

Hong Kong scores a high of 2 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being best) for "civil liberties", but a low 5 in "political rights" in the Freedom House rankings. These two elements constitute the main components of its "Freedom in the World" ratings. With its "civil liberties" score, Hong Kong matches Taiwan, Japan and South Korea while beating all other democracies in Asia, including the Philippines (3), India (3) and Indonesia (3).

"It is the only country or territory of the over 200 we rate in which there is such a large gap between political rights and civil liberties. Hong Kong is unusual because the political system is unique, but it is also especially important that Hong Kong's judiciary is as professional and independent as it is," says Cook.

As Freedom House's "political rights" category is a measure of formal democracy, it's no surprise that Hong Kong, and the mainland, does so poorly on that yardstick. But in various sub-categories of "civil liberties" that are associated with substantive democracy, Hong Kong does better than many of what Yam would call real democracies. In the sub-category of "rule of law", for example, Hong Kong scores higher than everybody else in Asia, matched only by Japan. In "personal autonomy and individual rights" and "freedom of expression and belief", no one beats Hong Kong. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan only manage to level with its score on some of these parameters.

In the Economic Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index, only Taiwan and Japan equal Hong Kong, which beats all others in the region hands down.

"Freedom House's assessments have found the quality of governance in democracies is typically better than in less democratic environments, and more participatory. However, where there is a strong and independent anti-corruption body, such as in Singapore or Hong Kong, or an independent judiciary, the government may be less corrupt and more efficient than its level of democratic performance might otherwise indicate," says Cook.

Many political scientists, however, take issue with bracketing democracy with good governance and participation. The label of "democracy" is also doled out as readily as other forms of executive accountability are dismissed, they contend. Francis Fukuyama, for one, argues the world has lost sight of the "Aristotelian distinction between kingship and tyranny" and hence cannot differentiate between China and Zimbabwe.

"The term 'accountability' has come to be associated almost exclusively with procedural accountability - that is, the presence or absence of free and fair multiparty elections … it is clear that many procedurally accountable democratic regimes are in effect unaccountable in terms of actual governance," Fukuyama writes in a recent paper for the Journal of Democracy.

Hong Kong is an example of the possibility of substantive accountability even without elections. In the World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators project that compiled data from 215 economies between 1996 and 2011, Hong Kong was head and shoulders above almost everybody else in the region in the six categories of governance: voice and accountability; political stability and absence of violence; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law; and control of corruption.

In Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Hong Kong ranks higher than all democracies in Asia. Only Japan (at 17) comes anywhere close to Hong Kong (14) and Singapore (5) in the region.

One would think electoral scrutiny would make well-entrenched democracies less corrupt than China. Yet China, ranked 80th, comes off better than most Asian democracies, including India (94), the Philippines (105) and Indonesia (118).

This superior performance of Hong Kong's unelected - hence theoretically unaccountable - executive has not gone unappreciated. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitive Index, Hongkongers and mainlanders have more faith in politicians than elsewhere in Asia where they are popularly elected.

In "public trust in politicians" under this index, Hong Kong and the mainland score 4.1 on a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being best), compared with 2.4 in the Philippines, 2.2 in India, 2.1 in South Korea and 3.1 in Japan. Only Taiwan, with 4.3, does better.

Hong Kong is distinct from other societies that have lately been in the throes of democratic movements, such as the Middle East, in that its cry for electoral reforms is not aimed at achieving modernisation, economic advancement and freedom. Rather, it is a product of these qualities, which Hong Kong already has in abundance, making it predisposed towards democracy. Studies show it is far easier for societies like Hong Kong to sustain democracy, once introduced.

Christian Welzel, president of the World Values Survey Association and co-author of Modernisation, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence, finds Hongkongers show a high degree of instinctive preference for freedom of choice and equality of opportunities, which he terms "emancipative values". The city scores a high 0.43 on a scale of 0 to 1, compared with 0.34 in the world's largest democracy, India.

This, he says, bodes well for Hong Kong's democratisation because it indicates the demand for democracy is substantive, rather than mere preference for a particular political order. Hitler's rise in a democracy, says Welzel, was in part possible because "Weimar Germany lacked substantive democracy insofar as emancipative values were not widespread and strong".

Democracies devoid of substance have a long history of failing. But given Hong Kong's strong fundamentals, if we do ever get democracy in its entirety here, Yam would probably not have to rise in protest for the same reasons as da Silva has.