Ho Lok-sang says the “Negative List” system that the Chinese mainland has implemented in its free trade ports is an excellent approach to invigorating the upcoming elections.
I had edited a volume titled Public Governance in Asia and the Limits of Electoral Democracy with my former colleague Brian Bridges. It was published in 2010 by Edward Elgar. I was aware of the limits of electoral democracy and tried to make the point that good governance is far more important than electoral democracy.
Since that time, many books have been published that criticize ballot-box democracy. Jason Brennan’s is one of them. The Ethics of Voting, published in 2012, argued that voters often do not do their homework before casting their votes. This could lead to dire consequences. In that provoking book, he argued why it is not a duty for most citizens to vote. A book review says: “Bad choices at the polls can result in unjust laws, needless wars, and calamitous economic policies. … (People) must vote well — or not vote at all.” In 2017, Brennan published a more-explicit critique against electoral democracy, the book carrying the glaring title Against Democracy. In the same year, Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens published Democracy in America: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. They had published earlier in Perspectives on Politics an empirical paper demonstrating that electoral democracy in practice did not empower the man in the street. Instead, it is always the elites and the rich who sway public policy in their favor. In 2018, historian James Miller published Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World. A book review starts with the line: “Today, democracy is the world’s only broadly accepted political system, and yet it has become synonymous with disappointment and crisis.”
Disqualifying those whose previous behavior indicates that they are not genuinely in support of the Basic Law and that they are unlikely to serve the best interest of Hong Kong is consistent with that concept (“patriots administering Hong Kong”). However, in order for the electoral system to work best, more effort needs to be made to promote public participation and lively elections
We now know for sure that electoral democracy is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for good governance. The Chinese mainland is not known for electoral democracy, but its overall performance trumps most democracies in many spheres. It is clearly the best performer in handling COVID-19. Being the first country to have reported an outburst of the epidemic, it nevertheless managed to contain the total cumulative number of infections to fewer than 100,000, with deaths from the disease well under 5,000. Its poverty alleviation effort and outcome won worldwide recognition. It has, within four decades, turned into the world’s premier manufacturer, the world’s leader in speed rail and infrastructure builder, the world’s leader in 5G communication, one of the world’s safest countries. In education, in public health, in environmental protection, in preservation of biodiversity and in national defense, its performance is outstanding.
Notwithstanding the flaws of electoral democracy, Beijing did promise that Hong Kong will enjoy universal suffrage through gradual progression to “double universal suffrage” (shuang puxuan) for elections of the chief executive and all legislators of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. After the National Security Law for Hong Kong came into force, social order and a well-functioning Legislative Council have resumed. We are now in a better position to benefit from electoral democracy. Let’s see to it that it will not disappoint.
Under the concept of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, a number of District Council members have been disqualified, including some who had taken the oath of allegiance to the HKSAR and vowed to abide by the Basic Law. Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai said that having considered all information gathered from different sources and from the councilors themselves, the government determined that their oaths were invalid. They lost their seats immediately. Disqualifying those whose previous behavior indicates that they are not genuinely in support of the Basic Law and that they are unlikely to serve the best interest of Hong Kong is consistent with that concept. However, in order for the electoral system to work best, more effort needs to be made to promote public participation and lively elections.
Actually, the “Negative List” system that the Chinese mainland has implemented in its free trade ports is an excellent approach to invigorating the upcoming elections. The concept of the Negative List is that apart from what has been identified as not permissible, the remainder is permissible. There will then be no need to seek permission item by item. The Negative List should be transparent and reasonable, so that the outcome will have credibility. Using this approach, we will achieve greater diversity and likely more active public participation in the upcoming Legislative Council election.
In general, disqualification of anyone would be based on, among other things, the person’s speech and writings. Is there advocacy for bypassing the Basic Law’s requirement for the Nominating Committee’s approval for candidacy for the chief executive position? Is there opposition to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on candidacy requirements? Does the aspiring candidate ask for “self-determination” or separatism? Does the aspiring candidate respect China’s territorial integrity? Does the aspiring candidate reject the leadership of the Communist Party of China on the mainland? I would see these as the key questions to ask. If an aspiring candidate for a LegCo seat is clear from all these, then I would hope that the 1,500 members of the Election Committee as well as the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee would allow more people from diverse backgrounds to compete for the 20 directly elected seats.
The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.