OSAKA – It is one of the richest places in the world, a global metropolis, Asia’s financial hub, a cornucopia to commerce, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, especially for shopping, with 60 million visitors predicted this year, a true rags to riches story that has seen its per capita income soar to more than $52,000, about the same as the United States and Switzerland and in the world’s top 10 territories by income.
Yet the 7.2 million people of Hong Kong do not have the same rights that citizens of the U.S., United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, Australia, Canada or India take as part of their birthright — the right to choose their own government. Now that is about to change, or so Beijing, Hong Kong’s ruling power, has promised: “democracy” will finally come to Hong Kong from the 2017 election of the chief executive, who will be chosen by one-person, one-vote.
But there should be a large warning sign on that word “democracy.” It is not democracy in the way that Japanese, Americans or Indians understand it — open, free-wheeling, with opportunities to question the powers that would be. It is democracy with what I would call Humpty Dumpty characteristics.
Remember the famous egg in Lewis Carroll’s story for children and philosophers of all ages. To quote from the story: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Just so with China. Hong Kong people may soon be able to choose their chief executive, but they will not have any choice in who can be a candidate for office. In a ruling over the weekend, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee declared that the candidates for office must win the support of a majority of a specially appointed nominating committee, which will be packed with loyalists of Beijing. The committee “shall nominate two to three candidates in accordance with democratic procedures.” Even after the new chief is selected by popular vote, he or she “will have to be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”
China has also imposed the condition that any candidate for the chief executive’s job must be “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong”, more Humpty Dumpty expressions that mean that Beijing will effectively decide who can run, so that the actual election may turn out to be little more than a rubber-stamping.
Beijing justified its less than democratic “democracy” by claiming that because “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country are at stake, there is a need to proceed in a prudent and steady manner.”
China and its supporters patted themselves on the back. Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the NPC standing committee, described the committee’s decision as “legal, fair and reasonable. It is a dignified, prudent decision, and its legal effect is beyond doubt.”
Hong Kong’s current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was chosen by a small 1,200-strong committee of Beijing loyalists, claimed: “universal suffrage for the (chief executive) election by Hong Kong people is not only a big step forward for Hong Kong, but also a historic milestone for our country.”
In fact, China’s decision is immediately divisive for Hong Kong and potentially dangerously damaging for the future and prosperity of the territory. Disappointed democrats believe that they have been shut out of Hong Kong’s future by the decision may demonstrate.
Benny Tai, a law professor and one of the leaders of the “Occupy Central” movement, which threatens to try to sit in and disrupt the financial and business district of Hong Kong, described the NPC decision as “the darkest day in the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development.”
Martin Lee, former legislator and founder of the Democratic Party, said that the decision meant that the candidates for chief executive would be Beijing puppets and asked, “What is the difference between a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana?”
If the frustrated and excluded democrats do push their civil disobedience movement, there will be a real risk of violence, however peaceful their intent. Hong Kong authorities, instructed by Beijing not to put up with nonsense of protests, will seek to prevent or clear away any demonstrators.
There is no easy way out. Those who do not want to see Hong Kong’s prosperity or business life disrupted by protests say they hope that the democrats will come to their senses and accept the limited democracy that is immediately offered in the hope of enlarging it. The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English daily, espoused this idea. It recognized that “those who have been fighting for free democratic elections are understandably outraged by the (NPC) ruling.”
But it urged that the choice was to “accept the model to achieve one person, one vote; or veto it and live with the old system. Idealists will opt for the latter, saying that the rules fall short of international standards on international ballots. Pragmatists will opt for a step forward.” The paper’s choice was for pragmatism since it concluded that “On the road to democracy, progress is always preferable to a standstill.”
This analysis does not take into account the determination of Beijing to push its version of “democracy” and allow nothing extra. NPC’s Li threatened that if Hong Kong’s legislature does not pass China’s version of “democracy,” the territory will be stuck for ever with the old system where the chief executive was chosen by the committee of 1,200.
Last week at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Wang Zhenmin, dean of the law school at Tsinghua University and adviser to the Chinese government on Hong Kong, outrageously declared that Hong Kong’s rich must be protected against democracy “because they control the destiny of the economy in Hong Kong. If we ignore their interests, then Hong Kong capitalism will stop.”
Hong Kong has been ill-served by its elite. Since China took over the former British colony in mid-1997, the city has changed enormously. The rich have gotten richer. Mainland Chinese have flooded in both as tourists and as purchasers of property, which have driven prices sky-high.
A succession of chief executives have proved too weak to handle constant sniping between pro-Beijing loyalists and democrats, and too disconnected from Hong Kong reality to tackle pressing social and economic problems.
Whatever you might say about China’s communist system, it is intensely competitive and political. If someone rises to the top in Fujian or Guangdong or Shanghai, he — not she yet — has to show a great deal of political competence. This is not the case in Hong Kong. The city needs a chief executive who puts Hong Kong and its problems first, not someone who has constantly to check in and prove loyalty to Beijing, which is what China’s democracy with Humpty Dumpty characteristics will perpetuate.
There are those who say that democracy does not exist. Americans for example have the same sort of choice as Hong Kong people will be offered, to invoke Lewis Carroll again, a contest between a Tweedledum and Tweedledee, identical twins bawling over a rattle. But tell Indians that politics does not matter and that there is no difference between Congress and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or look at Japan before and after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
True democracy has to be an ongoing dialogue, in which elections are a focal point, offering prospects of change. Hong Kong needs a real contest of ideas and policies by politicians who understood the issues, not just a chief executive who can suck up to Beijing.
By its Humpty Dumpty attitude to democracy, Beijing has damaged Hong Kong and, ultimately, itself. It should remember what happened to the Humpty Dumpty of legend.
Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University’s Institute for Academic Initiatives, is author of “City on the Rocks: Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future.”
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