Two farcical cases belie the superiority of Western-style democracy

The current fierce competition among the Conservative Party elites for the prime ministership of the United Kingdom is an eye-opener for those Hong Kong residents who worship Western democracy! Instead of expecting the post to be elected by “one person, one vote” among qualified electors throughout the country, they now found that the election is a closed-shop exercise of the Conservative Party. 

It’s a two-stage restricted election. Firstly, two candidates are selected by a small group of 358 members of the Conservative faction in the House of Commons, and then put to a vote by the 200,000 members of the Conservative Party, which is merely 0.3 percent of the British population. The wider public and voters have absolutely no say in choosing their next prime minister!

This UK election, in so far as democratic representation is concerned, is much worse than the electoral reform proposed in 2014 by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government for the election of the chief executive. Under that proposal, two or three candidates would first be selected by the 1,200 members of the widely representative Nominating Committee and presented for a “one person, one vote” territorywide election involving over 5 million eligible voters. Bearing in mind that the UK population is nine times that of the HKSAR, clearly our proposed electoral reform offers much-wider representation and credibility. Yet the proposal was rudely denigrated by many Western governments and critics, including the persistent China-basher, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, as undemocratic! Through their proxies in Hong Kong, they launched a massively disruptive protest movement, “Occupy Central”, against the proposed electoral reform, which paralyzed traffic in several main business districts for 79 days, severely affecting the economy and peoples’ livelihoods. Collaboratively, their anti-establishment cronies in the Legislative Council voted down the proposal on June 18, 2015. Thus, a genuine attempt to push Hong Kong toward a breakthrough universal suffrage election was sabotaged.

It will be very enlightening to see who will eventually be elected as the next UK prime minister. According to the latest polls, the former chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, had secured the highest number of votes from the Conservative parliamentarians. Yet according to the latest YouGov poll of the full membership of the Conservative Party, Sunak was seen losing to his competitor, Liz Truss, by a wide margin of 35 to 54. This is promising to be a learning moment, as while it appears that Sunak is recognized as a better candidate by Conservative parliamentarians who know his ability well, he is not the favorite among the rank and file of the Conservative Party. The only plausible explanation is Sunak’s Indian parentage. The interesting question now is, would the UK, a country where white supremacy is in plain sight, be prepared to accept a highly capable British national of Indian descent as its next head of government?

During the colonial era, most government buildings in Hong Kong had separate toilet facilities for white expatriates and local Chinese. Indians were employed as doormen at first-class European hotels, which is just one of many manifestations of their undisguised racial discrimination at the time!

The current political turmoil now causing countrywide disruption in Sri Lanka is largely the result of its adoption of a Western-style democracy, which was totally unsuited for the country’s needs. When I first visited Sri Lanka in 2010, it had just ended its 26-year civil war, but despite its poverty, all major infrastructure and government services seemed to be working, and the country was showing promise to become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The problem began in November 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was propelled to the presidency, thanks to his extravagant unrealistic election promises, including impractical massive tax cuts that adversely impacted government revenue and fiscal policies, causing budget deficits to soar. At the time, the country’s public finances were already in a precarious state. They quickly became unsustainable when he tried to fulfill his election promises by lowering tax-free thresholds, which resulted in a 33 percent decline in registered taxpayers; reducing the value-added tax from 15 to 8 percent; cutting corporate tax; and abolishing a 2 percent nation-building tax that financed infrastructure development. Additionally, the government unjustifiably handed out generous freebies and social benefits to the people that it could not afford. To cover deficit government spending, its Central Bank began printing money in record amounts, which led to economic implosion and the current crisis. Its foreign debt obligation is now over $50 billion, up from $22 billion in 2010.

The Sri Lankan president was elected overwhelmingly by the people in November 2019, but in less than three years, the presidential office is now in shambles, with the presidential palace itself taken over by an angry mob, all of which was captured by the international media. Clearly, the country’s experiment in Western-style democracy has proved to be a dismal failure.

In a way, American democracy fared no better, as the election platforms of most candidates were replete with overgenerous promises of tax reductions and more government subsidies. Together with its huge military spending, with the Pentagon constantly lobbied by the powerful military industrial complex, the US is now the country with the highest national debt. According to the New York City-based Peter G Peterson Foundation, the US national debt currently is $30.53 trillion, or the equivalent of about $91,700 for every person in the country. By comparison, Sri Lanka’s Department of External Resources said that country’s total foreign debt in April 2021 was $35.1 billion — 0.115 percent of the current US debt. If it were not for the fact that the US dollar is still the acknowledged leading international currency and that there seemed to be no restraint on its printing, America should in all fairness long be declared bankrupt!

The dream of the supremacy of Western democracy has become in practice a nightmare for many who tried it. The “one person, one vote” mantra, while appealing and appearing democratic, is simply not what it’s cracked up to be in practice. It might have its use in a popularity contest, but not in the search for the most efficient governance system. Its Achilles’ heel lies in the massive campaign funding, which would mean indebtedness to vested interests and the need to win votes through extravagant campaign promises to the electorate. It ensures that campaigning politicians would be tempted to tell the public whatever they want to hear, but once elected, their promises would be ignored. It creates an illusion of free choice, but most election candidates are only interested in ultimately serving their financiers and their own ambitions, not the people voting for them, and where corruption is euphemistically called “lobbying”! That is the reason why any effective gun-control law can never get passed in the US Congress!

In retrospect, it’s not hard to see that the whole Western democracy is but a vicious cycle of electing, regretting and re-electing!

In comparison, our revamped political system has taken into consideration the shortcomings of the West’s popular political model and creates our own best model based on unique local conditions. The composition of the Legislative Council is particularly innovative and balanced. Its members are elected from three sources: the Geographical Constituencies, to represent the respective local interests; the Functional Constituencies, to represent the interests of all major functions of the society; while the Election Committee includes people with a macro view of the broader interests of the whole of Hong Kong and the country, not bound by geographical or functional loyalties. Accordingly, every single citizen’s voice is represented in LegCo either directly or indirectly. Equally important, there is an assurance that all elected representatives, as well as government officials, are patriots, and not proxies of the West.

Article 107 of the Basic Law emphasized that the HKSAR government shall follow the principle of keeping expenditures within the limits of revenue in drawing up its budget, showing great foresight to avoid Hong Kong falling into the all-too-common profligacy of many Western democracies. Let us beware that free lunches cannot substitute for well-thought-out government policies. Our healthy financial reserve is no excuse for profligate public spending.

In 1997, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita was 2 percent more than the UK, but after 25 years of Hong Kong becoming a special administrative region of China, our GDP per capita now is 5 percent more than the UK’s, according to World Bank data. In medical services, Hong Kong now has 5.6 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared with only 2.5 in the UK. In the next five years under the strong leadership of our new chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, it would be interesting to further compare the vital statistics on unemployment, poverty, crime rate, IT technology, etc, so we can determine which political system can bring a better quality of life to its people!

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.