Time for international community to reflect on essence of democracy

Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, delivered on Dec 6 a speech, explaining the rationale for and objective of Hong Kong’s electoral reform adopted in May. He also called for an open discussion on what the essence of democracy is, a topic that has been neglected for far too long. 

Democracy is a significant achievement of human civilization. As the world evolves, a global meeting to share experience on how to implement and improve such a form of government is very much needed. However, the United States has used such a meeting as a platform to attack the democratic development of some countries with different traditions, including China and its Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in particular.

But if you point a finger at someone, three fingers will point back at yourself. The US model of democracy, which has been portrayed as the “beacon” of democracy, has over recent years increasingly revealed its recurring illnesses and stunned the world with a series of political missteps. It’s no surprise that more and more people around the world believe the US should spend more time reflecting on its own political development rather than criticizing others.

To be honest, Hong Kong society had become enslaved to the same form of democracy.

All previous debates on electoral reforms aimed only at one goal: universal suffrage. There was little emphasis placed on how to improve the quality and representation of politics. We had similar issues as the US. Only when confrontation, deadlock, chaos and hatred prevailed did Hong Kong make the tough decision to change.

The problems are not difficult to see, but are too convenient to ignore. These problems can be felt by everyone who has taken part in politics. Here are the most vital five:

First, the system focuses too much on competition, but not on good governance. 

That is not to say that we should eliminate competition. But competition is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If the focus is on competition, elections will lead to confrontational politics and polarization of society.

The rise of Trumpism in the US demonstrated this exact result. Elections had degraded to mudslinging battles rather than gentlemen’s games. To win the election, rival candidates were portrayed as demons, and voters voted not in support of their nominees but in hatred of the rivals. The election may be exciting within itself, but its impact on social development is truly negative. This extends to all aspects of people’s lives. It simply demonstrates poor governance when people have to argue over whether they should wear a mask to fight an infectious disease because of political differences.

The same thing occurs in Hong Kong. Endless political wrangling and absurd ideologies occupied the legislature and hijacked our society. When the city’s development has been stagnant for a decade, you know it’s not good governance.

Second, there is a high risk that a US-model democracy will devolve into populist politics, leading to mob rule. Candidates frequently release false, misleading information and demagogic statements to demonize opponents and garner support. Such approaches are especially harmful in the age of social media. The Trump-incited riot at the Capitol Hill and Hong Kong’s scandalous 2019 anti-extradition movement were two of the most widely known examples of such a system.

Third, rather than being result-oriented, the model is process-oriented. The electoral system may be sophisticated enough, and all procedures are followed, but there is no mechanism in place to monitor how the results are delivered. Politicians are active only during elections but invisible during their service; they only occasionally show up as “political actors/actresses”. As a result, society has been in a vicious circle with no progression.

Fourth, such a system is entirely catered to politicians. A wide range of talents, including those who are more knowledgeable or capable of contributing to society, are very likely to be excluded from the competition due to subtle impediments. Politicians excel at raising campaign funds, negotiating with interest groups, and manipulating public opinion. And these are simply the rules of survival in such an electoral system.

And lastly, such a system, though with “one person one vote”, cannot represent a wide spectrum of social sectors. The grassroots has far fewer opportunities to participate in the race. The underprivileged can hardly be elected. Many social groups are excluded from the elections due to their socioeconomic status.

These are the major issues with the US-model democracy, and the reasons why it has become dysfunctional in recent years.

In contrast, Hong Kong seeks cures. With the Beijing-initiated electoral reform in place, the LegCo election was a significant leap toward solving all of the city’s problems.

As Xia mentioned in his speech, some of the unique characteristics of Hong Kong’s reformed electoral system are fair competition, broad representation, political inclusiveness and balanced participation. All of these characteristics are the appropriate treatments for the previously problematic democracy model.

The new candidate eligibility review committee that vets all candidates ensures election quality and prevents populist politics from hijacking the system. A policy-driven election would restore the focus to real issues, with the elected officeholders striving to achieve results in order to be re-elected.

An open and inclusive election will attract and accept talents from all walks of life, including political newbies and “apolitical intellectuals.”. This will significantly improve the intellectual ability of the legislature. A balanced participation allows the underprivileged and outsiders to have a say in the city’s political system and all these characteristics will lead to far better governance.

Though the reform may not be perfect and will need to be further enhanced as it goes forward, it’s a significant move toward the right direction. If the Hong Kong-style democracy succeeds, it will provide a valuable solution for other places dealing with similar issues.

Xia’s speech is a timely call for reflection and discussion on the essence of democracy. Every democratic system should strive for good governance.

However, some foreign governments and critics will never acknowledge the efforts to improve democratic systems, nor will they admit that the US model of democracy has its flaws.

Xia pointed out a simple truth: countries and regions should be free to choose the form of democracy that best meets their needs and this is exactly what Hong Kong is doing. There is no such thing as a universal standard for democracy.

The author is a member of the Guangdong Province Zhongshan City Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and executive vice-chairman of the Hong Kong CPPCC Youth Association.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.