Although the world might be under the impression that Hong Kong does not have universal suffrage, in fact, it does at the lower and mid-levels. When protesters say they are fighting for democracy, they mean at the highest level – the right of every adult Hongkonger to elect the territory’s senior-most leader, the chief executive. District council members are almost entirely directly elected. The legislature is half directly elected and the other half indirectly elected.
I spell all this out because I recently edited a piece by one pompous Western dude who was in Hong Kong as an independent observer of the recently held district council elections who seemed unaware of the facts. Did I mention how sick I am of Westerners arrogantly commenting and even coming in to judge in a semi-official capacity things they know little about?
So on November 24, Hong Kong went to the polls. There were fears that the government would cancel the elections and, of course, it would then be seen as the enemies of democracy, if that wasn’t clear already. I wonder what people would say if the pan-democrats had seen their offices burnt down and received constant death threats as the pro-establishment did this time? Would they have insisted on an election? Oh well, all’s fair in love and politics.
Anyway, the result of the election was a resounding votein favour of the pro-democrats and essentially an expression of support of the ongoing protests. Election Day was peaceful. The people did make their views known in a non-violent manner as the government has being saying they should.
What does government do? Nothing. Then:
1. Withdraws funding proposals for two universities involved in the violence because the pro-establishment camp (which lost heavily in the election) said they wouldn’t vote for it. Agreed, the proposals would have been voted down, but why not let that be a matter of public record?
2. Announces it will include more pro-establishment advisers. When the whole problem is that their were too many pro-establishment advisers to start with.
Hard not to conclude that:
1. The government only responds to violence and peaceful means of expression receive only a pat on the head and run along reaction
2. The only way forward is to burn everything to the ground.
That said, I don’t see why the protest movement increasingly cannot accept even a modicum of critique, such as perhaps publicly condemning the burning of a man who tried to remove their barricades. Claiming that a fair bit of discussion goes on on online channels used by protesters is not enough; there should be some sort of ethical baseline and an apology/condemnation publicly made if this is violated. Surely the protest movement is not as fragile as the communist party which functions on the belief that any critique should be quickly neutralised because it threatens the entire country.
Perhaps it’s time I eat my hat and agree with those who said that if Hong Kong had democracy, none of this would have happened because the government would be too afraid to push through unpopular policies (which to me is problematic in itself but let’s leave that aside).
But then we have India.
Watching the unrest in India from afar, it might not be immediately clear that the entire thing has been sparked by a democratically elected government doing exactly what they promised the electorate they would do.
The scary thing about being a minority in a democracy is that one is essentially at the mercy of the majority being nice to you. Unfortunately, the majority really isn’t nice or even thoughtful. At some point, the quite rational human instinct to protect one’s own interests kicks in.
In that sense, India had quite a good run of being collectively brainwashed by a handful of charismatic and well-intentioned upper-caste Hindu leaders that it was best for everyone to take the minorities along. Sadly, that could only last so long.
One might argue that Hong Kong, with its educated citizenry and well developed economy, will do better. But will it? Hong Kong is a homogenous society, and the recent protests have tended dangerously towards ethnocentrism. There have been encouraging gestures towards minorities but also less publicised tendencies to blame minorities when some among them behave in less than ideal ways.
Although English is an official language, it is increasingly disappearing from public life and one would be hardpressed to find an election leaflet that explains candidates plans and positions in English except in the most tony constituencies. Strangely, it is the pro-establishment politicians, not the pan-democrats, who tend to have at least some election material in English. Yet, we are expected to trust when the much vaunted democracy is achieved, pluralism will be upheld. More likely we are not considered at all.
While it is often argued that democracy/capitalism/marriage is not perfect, but it’s the best we have, left-leaning liberals have pointed out that this is not a good enough reason to keep capitalism. If the (politically not economically) liberal argument is that we should be able to think beyond capitalism and communism, then surely we should able to think beyond democracy too.