Opposition went astray en route to democracy
Updated: 2019-09-05 07:41
In 2011, there were riots in London and other cities in the United Kingdom. They did not last very long, but were intense and frightening while they did. There was much learned discussion about the reasons for the riots, with poverty and deprivation often cited. Certainly, there was a great deal of looting even though the goods with which the looters emerged from shops were not so much daily staples as flat-screen televisions and branded trainers. We can immediately see the contrast with the Hong Kong protests. However reprehensible much of the protesters’ behavior has been, it has never included this sort of greedy, selfish theft. We can be sure that what we are seeing are genuine political protests over real grievances. What Hong Kong lacks is a safety vent found in many societies of democracy and through the use of a vote the ability to select one’s own government. We should not be missing this: Gradual and orderly progress toward democracy is part of the intended evolution of Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model. There are, though, factors that hold back the achievement of this; the drags come from both the conservative and radical ends of the spectrum and, as usual in such situations, it is the middle that gets squeezed.
Conservatism suggests a longing to keep things as they have always been, and indeed for many years during British colonial rule, Hong Kong functioned without any sort of democracy at all. The Legislative Council was completely appointed, and the colonial governor was all-powerful. Then, as now, the influence of the business community was great. Gradually, some elements of accountability crept in with elected seats in the urban council, the setting up of the Office of the Ombudsman, and so on. It suited the elite, by and large, and others did not complain since what, after all, was the use, and they were anyway able to share in Hong Kong’s increasing prosperity and expanding welfare services. The bureaucrats were, of course, also happier since democracy means being questioned and held up to scrutiny, and who is going to enjoy that? The colonial system could allow civil servants to do as they thought best and, if it did not turn out well, cover up their mistakes and start again. It is altogether easy to see why the conservative forces for whom the status quo worked well should not be keen on an experiment in democratic development.
The conservatives could justly point to the advantages of the old non-democratic system. Even without elected politicians, public opinion was collected through mechanisms like the district offices; appointed members and civil servants discussed problems in a civilized manner; and decisions were made expeditiously and efficiently implemented. Once there were elected Legislative Council members from 1995 onward, the contrast was marked, disappointing and not in favor of the new. There were so many opportunities to do good that were not taken. Legislators could have worked with the administration to refine the bills that were put to them, to improve and suggest new policies, and to reflect grassroots concerns. Some, of course, did just that, but far too many and far too often disdained making such efforts in favor of grandstanding for the media by making broad brush accusations against the government and taking up legislative time with their knee-jerk opposition to government initiatives. Some opposition legislators seem to specialize in playing to the gallery, which seemed to have worked as they regularly get reelected though they hardly do anything constructive. There seemed to be very little concept of the dignity and importance of being part of the process of governance. The saddest moment came in 2016 when a crop of young people were elected to the Legislative Council, some of whom were undoubtedly of the intellectual caliber to make a valuable contribution. However, instead of demonstrating their understanding of their responsibility to their constituents and the community as a whole, they chose to indulge in the destruction of the solemn loath-taking ceremony as new legislators. In all sorts of legal and quasi-legal settings, oath-taking is by its nature a solemn matter, so their behavior represented an insult to the democratic institution they had been apparently so eager to join. They were, unsurprisingly, disqualified from office.
Discussion of democratic development stalled in 2015. At that time, the administration’s proposals were voted down in the Legislative Council, and the activists’ impractical alternative foundered together with the “Occupy Central” movement. Since the controversy over the extradition law amendments began, Hong Kong has been a ferment of emotions with an unhealthy dose of anti-social disruption thrown in. It should now become a ferment of discussion so that eventually we can look back at this period as a turning point for the better, not the worse, and also as the time when those promises of democracy began to be fulfilled.
(HK Edition 09/05/2019 page8)