Occupy Central Series: Democracy in Hong Kong

[This post is part of the Occupy Central Series]


Hong Kong might well blow up into an international news story in the next few weeks. From where I stand now, in mid-June, nobody knows how Occupy Central is going to unfold, though Part 2 looks at the energies and strategies at play. I should start by saying that I hate this term because I think it’s a catch-all term that doesn’t quite mean what people want it to mean. There is something we might call ‘mechanical democracy’ and then there are degrees of political pluralism and voice (what, for me, is ‘real’ democracy). We might also borrow from Charles Tilly’s definition of democracy as ‘grudging consent’:

All systems of rule, whether democratic or undemocratic, survive by finding stable supplies of the basic resources it takes to run a government: means of coercion, administration and patronage… The main difference between non- or pre- democratic regimes and democratic ones is that the former tend to commandeer resources under threat of coercion, whereas democratic ones draw essential resources mainly from subject populations that have substantial power to accept or reject their demands— populations with what we call “voice.” This is grudg- ing consent at work.

The Philippines, I believe, represents a case in how you can have ‘mechanical’ democracy without genuine voice and pluralism. In it we have an example that basically copied the US constitution in all the ‘right’ places, yet the same oligarchs get elected year after year, the justice system doesn’t workPh, and political and extrajudicial killings are rampant. There’s political pluralism only for those who are armed, not involved in mining issues, and not involved in sustaining provincial political status quos.

Hong Kong, today, is one of the only places in the world where there is genuine political pluralism but poor mechanics of democracy. This is mostly derived from the strange decision, which can be blamed on the British, to copy Mussolini’s ‘functional constituency‘ model of representation. In the US, powerful members of society and the private sector have to go through all sorts of hurdles to ‘buy’ their votes with campaign contributions. Hong Kong just grants them their own seats in Legco and votes for Chief Executive.

On the issue of our Chief Executive, the Basic Law says this:

  • The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.
  • The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

For anyone interested in ‘real democracy’, this is very poor wording. North Korea has ‘universal suffrage‘ in that everybody has the ‘right’ to vote. The problem, of course, comes in deciding who is on the ballot. “Nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” is unfortunately very vague. Most democratic polities choose their executives through some form of in-party nomination. In Hong Kong, however, Chief Executives are not allowed to belong to a party and thus rule this option out. The Election Committee that selects the Chief Executive today does not meet this standard by any reasonable criteria, and the debate has shifted to how this might be reformed.

Occupy Central will have a vote this weekend with three proposals. All proposals fit the textbook definitions for mechanical democracy, in that all permanent residents of Hong Kong get a say in the candidate, but arguably violate the Basic Law. Beijing has flatly refused their proposals. While Beijing’s proposal is not yet fully clear, it seems like they want veto power under the guise of ‘patriotism.’ Anyone who is not ‘patriotic’ cannot run for Chief Executive. It does not take a deep analysis to see that this is extremely problematic and looks nothing like mechanical democracy, and instead makes worse the existing system. Where now it is at least nominally pluralistic about who can run (indeed, democrats ran in the last ‘election’), it would become significantly less so for the next election.

To be very clear, then, this is a step backwards for Hong Kong democracy. Giving Beijing a direct, rather than de facto, veto in Hong Kong local politics is a crippling blow to One Country, Two Systems.

Let me wrap this section up by saying that I think this is actually an artifact of intra-Party politics as much as it is about Hong Kong’s autonomy. In very broad strokes, there has been a lingering question about what 2047 (when the Basic Law expires) will look like. There is, or there was hoped, an opportunity for the CCP to ‘learn the ropes’ of political pluralism through Hong Kong in the same way Shenzhen and other Special Economic Zones were a place to learn economic and social liberalization in a contained environment. Setting Hong Kong on this course would, in turn, set China up on this course. The worst case scenario was the opposite, that Hong Kong would become more like China.

The question is essentially this: when the political walls come down in Hong Kong in 2047, will the tides of autocracy in China have subsided enough easy integration with (what was) Hong Kong’s political pluralism and rule of law, or will instead the tide have stayed high and flood Hong Kong? Again, this is a fight as much for China’s political future as Hong Kong’s. There’s every indication that Xi is cracking down on political reformers in the CCP and in Chinese society generally. It looks to me as if this debate over Hong Kong’s Chief Executive recruitment was meant to be death blow to them.


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