Achieving democracy with HK characteristics

Updated: 2014-06-04 05:49

By Yang Sheng (HK Edition)

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This month is a pivotal time in Hong Kong's ongoing discussions about universal suffrage. The SAR government will unveil its draft plan for constitutional development after five months of public consultations. The "Occupy Central" movement will also stage a so-called referendum to choose its own "ultimate plan". Hong Kong society is still divided over the issue of universal suffrage.

Elections are part of the democratic process. However, if you look at different countries and regions, you notice the electoral systems and political arrangements are varied. There is no universal standard adopted by all societies. But "suitable" and "effective" ingredients are vital to democratic success everywhere.

Adopting an electoral system is not just a matter of skill but also a political process closely linked with history, culture, social and political realities. Hong Kong is no exception. It is a city thriving on the fringes of capitalism and socialism. It was a colony of Britain for more than one and a half centuries. It is an international financial center playing an unparalleled role in driving China's reforms and a free community with no democratic tradition. It is also the envy of many Western societies when it comes to civil liberties. As a special administrative region under the central government rather than an independent political entity, the city has many unique characteristics. That is why Hong Kong must consider all these factors when implementing universal suffrage.

While Hong Kong democracy has unique traits, it has also developed some controversial characteristics since democratization began 30 years ago. The autocratic executive-led government of the colonial era has all but gone. But the city has been able to remain the freest economy in the world for decades. Hong Kong is known as the "city of protests" and the Legislative Council has earned a name for record-breaking filibusters. But Hong Kong citizens enjoy more freedoms than many of their Western counterparts in advanced democracies.

Even though Hong Kong has not achieved universal suffrage yet, checks and balances still function here effectively. The checks and balances mechanism is shown not only in the typical Western model of tripartite separation of powers, but also carried out in a power-distribution system. This includes internal disciplinary organs such as the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Audit Commission.

Equally important is a vibrant civil society thriving over recent decades. Apart from being a watchdog of government and business, the "third sector" serves as a crucial partner in governance. A powerful free press plays the role of Fourth Estate with unmistakable Hong Kong characteristics - again which some Western countries wish they had.

It does not hurt to compare democracy in Hong Kong with other democracies in Asia. These days, "one person one vote" seems to be the name of the game. But the rules of democracy are not always followed faithfully. This can result in social disorder and the impotency of governments. In Thailand, for instance, since the country began democratization in 1997, Thaksin Shinawatra was the only elected prime minister to complete his term in office. But Thaksin was still deposed in his second term. His sister, Yingluck, was the first ever democratically elected woman prime minister of a Southeast Asian nation. But she also had her career cut short.

The oldest democracy in Asia - the Philippines - is also an interesting case. It's a shame the nation's economy has not been able to prosper despite a US-style democratic system transplanted after World War II. With hardly anything to constitute competitiveness, about half of its population survives on some $2 a day on average. Of its population of 90 million, more than 10 million work overseas doing mostly low-skilled jobs. Today, overseas remittance by domestic helpers is a mainstay of the Philippines' foreign exchange revenue. The sad reality prompted one American author to describe the country as "the broken showcase of democracy in Asia".

Singapore is one of a few states in Asia able to deliver on the promise of democracy. Like Hong Kong, the city state was also a British colony for over a century. Its parliamentary democracy is basically inherited from the colonial era, but founding Premier Lee Kuan Yew attached much importance to what he called Asian values and advised against copying Western democracy. He also suggested there was no need for Asian countries to subscribe to so-called universal values completely. Lee paid scant attention to the accusations of autocracy some Western critics made against him. The "Singapore model" he developed combines the British system with the work style of the Communist Party of China and Asian values. The result is a "guided democracy", also known as "managed democracy", which emphasizes efficiency, cleanliness, rule of law and the ability to heed popular wishes.

Hong Kong discussions over how to achieve universal suffrage is currently facing a kind of stalemate. The examples listed above can help us better appreciate the diversity of democratic applications. Given the long domination by Western academics of theoretical debates over democratic development, people now take it for granted that Western democracy is the only model. Despite its many advantages, Western-style democracy tends to become a game of domination among political parties at the expense of society. Political parties jockey for power against the public will and sometimes even oppose each other just for the sake of it. When that happens, the government may find itself paralyzed while parties fight it out in the legislature with dirty tricks, such as filibustering. Hong Kong society, having yet to implement universal suffrage, is already a victim of such a blatant abuse of democratic procedures.

But there is no reason for Hong Kong to repeat Western democracies' mistakes simply because some pundits insist we should comply with "international standard(s)".

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 06/04/2014 page9)