Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong (Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Not just democracy

Hong Kong protestors are fighting for British-style institutions

I’ve had my doubts about democratic elections. They surfaced recently when conversation with Charlie—my privately educated, twenty-something personal trainer—made a rare turn into politics. I must have communicated my alarm at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn ever entering No. 10, for Charlie countered by expressing his enthusiasm. Discreetly swallowing my astonishment, I asked why. “Because he’s a veggie,” came the answer, “and he doesn’t like killing people”. Voters aren’t always fully informed rational actors. And sometimes they can be seriously unwise—as when they elected the Nazi party into a leading position in the German Reichstag in July 1932. 

Elections, therefore, are no guarantee of political well-being. Indeed, they’re not essential to it. Twelve years after Sun Yat-sen had overcome the Qing Empire to establish a republic in China in 1911, he was asked about the inspiration of his revolutionary ideas. He located it in his sojourns as a refugee in the British Colony of Hong Kong, where he’d experienced the prosperity that political order makes possible—as well as a free press and protection against extradition. After 1945 several million fellow-Chinese confirmed Sun’s view, when they chose to flee mainland anarchy for a better life under colonial government. But it was the rule of law that drew them, not the right to vote. The Colony did not grant universal adult suffrage.   

So, when I flew to protest-troubled Hong Kong two months ago, I took my doubts about democratic elections with me. Scepticism was especially appropriate since I was booked to address a conference on the 20th century American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, friend of presidents and pioneer of ‘Christian Realism’. Niebuhr’s liberal idealism had been rudely chastened in 1915, when as a pastor in Detroit he’d witnessed the bitter industrial strife between the Ford Motor Company and its workers. Thereafter Niebuhr never forgot that politics is about the conflict of interests and that political justice invariably takes the adulterated form of tolerable compromise. His consequent view of electoral democracy was strikingly unromantic: “Democracy”, he said, “is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems”.

Elections are no guarantee of political well-being. Indeed, they’re not essential to it.

At the end of the conference, therefore, I put some candid questions to my hosts. When the people of Hong Kong take to the streets in protest, what is it they want? Is it the right of every adult to vote for any candidate, not just those approved by the Politburo? Is that so vitally important? Isn’t the rule of law, which creates legal equality and gives citizens protection against the state’s arbitrary conduct, more fundamental? And what about a free press, which is another way of representing the views of the ruled and making rulers pay attention? These different elements of constitutional, liberal, and responsive government developed gradually over centuries in Britain, where the vote didn’t reach all adults until 1928—just twenty-seven years before I was born. But that surely wasn’t the first time that sufficiently responsible government appeared on British shores? So, might not the Hong Kong protesters be demanding too much, too fast from Beijing? Mightn’t they be repeating the mistake of European idealists in 1848, who, in their youthful impatience to establish liberal constitutions, overreached themselves, provoked violent reaction, and were comprehensively crushed? 

My Hong Kong colleagues listened politely, but were unmoved. When I’d finished, they pointed out that Beijing isn’t merely resisting fully free elections; it’s also actively dismantling the liberal, constitutional institutions already in place. First, Beijing has sought—so far in vain—to get Hong Kong’s government to pass an extradition law that would give them what the British denied the Qing regime over Sun Yat-sen, namely, the power to extract political dissidents for trial in politically controlled courts. Next, most of the press has been bought up by mainland businesses that have a material interest in toeing the regime’s line. Further, whereas the old colonial governors, aided by a handful of British expatriates, used to rely heavily on local counsel, Beijing is now imposing top-down control by flooding the ‘Special Administrative Region’ with its own agents. Further still, in refusing to let the police be held to impartial account for using disproportionate violence in suppressing the recent protests, the SAR’s own government is compromising the rule of law. And finally, the fact that it took Britain three hundred years to develop democratic institutions doesn’t mean that other countries must take as long. Taiwan, which was a one-party state under martial law as late as 1987, is now a fully functioning democracy.    

My Hong Kong colleagues didn’t cure me of my doubts about democratic elections, notwithstanding their merits as a way of making governments listen: Charlie’s alarming political naïveté still warns that a vote’s results can’t be any wiser than the voters, and that voters can sometimes be seriously foolish. But I did fly home freshly impressed by how precious are other, more broadly ‘democratic’ elements like the rule of law and a free press in making rulers responsive, in fostering political trust among the ruled, and so in avoiding bloodshed on the streets—and how important it is to defend them. So, when the pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong tells us in his new book, Unfree Speech, that the Chinese superpower’s political repression in Hong Kong is “an early warning signal” to the rest of the world, I pay attention.

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