Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
The chant is always for democracy. The unquestioned mantra is that more democracy equals more freedom and prosperity. But is that the case? And what does democracy means in any case? These are questions that went through my head as I escorted pro-democracy processions.
In my more mischievous mood, I’d take the opportunity to pose these very issues to the students or young people I was escorting.
“What sort of democracy do you want?”
“Like in the US or UK” would be a common reply.
If time and circumstances permitted I’d offer “But the US president is not elected by one man one vote.
It’s an electoral college system. The President could win but have fewer votes than his rival.”
The perplexed looks this drew often indicated the conversation was over. What struck me first is their ignorance of how democratic systems work or evolve. Also, the blind assertion that once we get ‘democracy’ it solves all their problems is baffling. It's also plain naive. Yet, it's a seductive notion. A simple theory. The perfect excuse for evasion of certain truths and omission of evidence. There is a shorthand to the thought processes of these protesters: 'Democracy/ voice/ all is well'. They skip: 'How it works/ influence peddling/ fickle public opinion/ bad outcomes'. I suppose all that is too complex for those following slogans. You can’t speak of the ocean to a frog that lives in a well.
Professor Francis Fukuyama points out that geography and climate have as much impact on the economic success of a nation as its political institutions. Be these democratic or otherwise. Given the complex nature of human behaviour, it is not possible to attribute an outcome to a single factor. Thus, it’s arguable that ‘democracy' (in whatever form) will bring about the goal the Hong Kong protesters Hong Kong seek.
The track record of introducing democracy to post-colonial states is patchy at best. Yes, I know that Hong Kong is not a state as such. Yet, the nearest comparison we can find is what happened in the post-colonial nations. Democracy has not brought good outcomes for most of the African States liberated from colonists. Even when the departing British left behind a template based on the so-called 'mother of parliaments'. It's not working well in Afghanistan either. Nor is the system operating in Russia a shining example of democracy best outcomes.
Nearer to home, the Philippines bumps along. Corruption distorting any attempt to gain good for the majority. The power of money and influence peddling is stark, whilst State institutions appear weak in the face of strong leaders.
And that's the point about democracy and probably it's greatest weakness. It allows powerful forces with money and influence to capture the political process to the detriment of the majority. Fringe elements mobilised against the greater good have undue sway. Hence, Brexit and Trump.
Opinion is divided on what makes a democracy function well. Certainly strong institutions that function according to the law are crucial. These act to counterbalance the demands of malevolent leaders or over zealous political entities.
On this basis, Hong Kong has indicators that suggest democracy would work here. These include strong institutions such as the Courts, rule of law and a relatively corruption-free police force. The ICAC and other agencies also play a role.
Nonetheless, I'd expect that in any democratic Hong Kong vested interests would continue to wield influence. Seeking to protect their businesses leading current players would shift their influence peddling. They'd now focus on democratic bodies. Given their considerable resources it's foreseeable that their influence, whilst less direct, would be large. Thus the existing centres of influence would remain intact.
So by no means does democracy bring the people power nirvana the young protesters on the streets of Hong Kong seek. Democracy will come to Hong Kong. I hope the marchers and protesters are happy with the outcome. But I'm not so sure the outcome will appease them.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.