I was inspired by an open address from Mr. Gerard Millet, a businessman from France who has been living and working in Hong Kong for over 30 years. I took the liberty (forgive me Mr. Millet) to reword much of it and add other parts of my own as my conclusion is different than his, though I share many of his arguments.
Hong Kong and Democracy
After a week of participating in debates and online discussion forums regarding the subject of democracy it has become evident that this subject is a big ball of confusion among many native Hong Kongers. At this point I think one of the best things anyone can do in Hong Kong is to grab their friend and neighbor who is avidly fighting for “democracy” and enlighten them what it really means AND what Hong Kong already HAS!
Before I elaborate on democracy I just want to say once and for all that living in Hong Kong for over 4 years (not planning on leaving any time soon) and having lived in some of the most “democratic” countries in the world, namely the U.S., Canada and Sweden, Hong Kong is (or at least was until the recent mess started) one of the most safe, free, peaceful, tolerant, multi-racial and multi-cultural regions in the world. Maybe the most free and dynamic city in all of Asia. (Singaporeans I know you will argue this…)
Despite being under Chinese sovereignty it enjoys its own judiciary, rule of law, free press (at least relative to the rest of the “free world”) and freedom of expression. Whether you think so right now or not, the people in Hong Kong enjoy the same advantages of a democratic society (outside of electing their own Chief Executive) as most other democratic countries, even if its political system can’t technically be called a “democracy”.
What does democracy mean?
The term originates from the Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) “rule of the people”, which was found from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (kratos) “power” or “rule” in the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens. [Yes, I just stole this from Wikipedia!]
In short democracy denotes a form of government in which all eligible citizens are meant to participate equally – either directly or, through elected representatives, indirectly – in the proposal, development and establishment of the laws by which their society is run. One basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely in the life of their society.
If you were to Google or browse through dictionaries you’ll find that no real consensus exists on how to define democracy exactly, but legal equality, freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics since ancient times. These are all present in Hong Kong already.
Do other democratic countries elect their leader?
Yes and no. The electoral system is only a means to structure the participation of the citizens to the political process. How that electoral process is executed doesn’t define whether or not that society is democratic in nature. To imply that without a direct election of the head of state or of government, there can be no democracy is simply untrue. Most of the European countries, including Sweden, do not have a directly elected head of state or government. People vote on a political party, and the party selects its own leader. The head of the majority party becomes the head of state. Very few democratic countries have a directly elected head of state or government.
If one were to break down one of the most famous democratic constitutions – the American Constitution you’ll find that a Democracy is about checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of the government and not about the direct or non direct election of the head of the executive branch.
This is where I believe many students and pro-democracy advocates have been mislead either by lack of information or intentionally through their leaders. Having a democratic type society is NOT established by the fact of having an unrestricted direct election of the Chief Executive.
Hong Kong is NOT a country.
Hong Kong is not an independent country. It is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. It has a mini-constitution (the Basic Law) which includes many (if not most) attributes of a democratic system. It includes an independent judiciary and well separated legislative and executive branches of the government. The head of government, the Chief Executive, has a dual role: he is the head of the Executive Branch but he also embodies some of the attributes of national sovereignty vested in him by the National People Congress of the People’s Republic of China.
To claim that China has no right to have a say about the process of selecting the Chief Executive is to deny the right of China to exercise its sovereignty over Hong Kong. This is naturally unacceptable for China as it would be for any other nation with the same circumstances.
Though this is not really pertinent to the argument, When I cam to Hong Kong I felt like I came to a society about as free and democratic as Sweden where I was raised. I also thought Hong Kong’s society as a whole with its (sort of) British system integrated into a Chinese culture had aspects to it I enjoyed more than in the “freest country on Earth” – the U.S.A. (where I lived for 20 years.) Yes – opinion. Yes – only been here 4 years. Yes – not native. Yes – don’t yet know everything about China and Hong Kong (though I know quite a bit.) And Yes, what I’m otherwise saying here is not so much opinion but hard cold facts of reality.
It is true, as acknowledged the world over, that the Hong Kong protesters have behaved in an extraordinary peaceful manner. The media loves to headline stories with blood and controversy and so the Hong Kong police force has gotten its share of pummeling both locally and internationally. No doubt there’s some justified anger to be had but comparing to how the police is (and would have been) reacting to the same circumstances were they to happen in the rest of the civilized and democratic world, Hong Kong’s police force are a bunch of lambs!
What is often failed to be mentioned is that the Occupy Central movement has brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill for a week now. What do you think would be the reaction of the US or British governments if New York or London had been partially paralyzed for more than a week? I can pretty much ascertain what that reaction would be. The behavior and reactions of the authorities in both Hong Kong and Beijing have so far been very restrained. I hope it continues to be so.
What do we do from here?
I have found many people who like to quote good old Lincoln. One favorite quote is: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” Lincoln probably adapted this from a similar phrase used in the 1850s by abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker. During the early months of the Civil War, Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon gave the president a book of Parker’s sermons and speeches. It included a sermon titled “The Effect of Slavery on the American People,” which Parker delivered at the Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts on July 4, 1858. In that sermon, Parker said: “…a government of all the people, by all the people, and for all the people.” According to Herndon, Lincoln marked those words in his copy before he wrote the Gettysburg Address.
So without veering off into how this statement relates to electing a Chief Executive, just contemplate for a few minutes the effects of the current student protests and the Occupy Central movement in regards to “all the people.”
Public assembly is a human right. But blocking roads and entrances to buildings for a week paralyzing sections of the society – are those actions of and for all the people of Hong Kong?
You say you seek democracy but your actions are very undemocratic in nature.
Rapid dialog to resolve and end this situation is in place. That would be the most beneficial and responsible way to go about this, if we want to consider this society democratic.
The discussion about the electoral reform must be conducted calmly in a proper setting and certainly not in the streets. This process will take time. Patience will be needed. The protesting students have made their views known the world over. Can they please adhere to the principles of the system they say they stand for and responsibly and peacefully stop blocking roads and access to buildings and work places? If not they will continue to deny the working class of Hong Kong their constitutional rights of freedom of movement and access to their work necessary to support their families.
Maybe a new public vote is in order to find out what the majority opinion is on this subject matter in Hong Kong. It would have to include the majority of people though, AND the majority would have to know about it and be briefed without bias on facts – not political opinion. That would be a democratic thing to do.
If the Occupy movement doesn’t act in accordance with resolution while ceasing to upset Hong Kong’s system itself, I’m afraid a large majority of the people of Hong Kong will equate the concept of democracy to anarchy, and there goes your democracy…
One of my favorite books is The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Mostly every tactic described in this book is being played out in Hong Kong, as it has been in most every conflict and war for as long as man can remember. Per Sun Tzu it is the outcome that is important, NOT prolonged operations.
So let’s focus on the outcome, stop redefining democracy and realize what a beautiful city region you already have and work from here to improve it along with China instead of against it. If you want autonomy that’s one thing, but don’t act as though this view is a majority opinion.