There are two great ironies coming out of the current protests in Hong Kong.
First, whilst the rest of the world’s youth are coming out in protest against government inaction on climate change, some of the Hong Kong youth have come out violently for the cause of democracy and freedom.
The Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, in her passionate “How Dare You” speech, shamed the elderly leaders at the United Nations for failing to act decisively to deal with the global climate change damage to what the next generation will inherit. She was concerned about global common concerns. Right on!
Second, even as the Hong Kong youth wave the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes, these Western democracies are experiencing political crises bordering on chaos, with US impeachment and Brexit economic risks.
If electoral democracy means that the majority votes prevail, Donald Trump was elected president even though he won 2.87 million votes less than Hillary Clinton.
Boris Johnson is already a dysfunctional Prime Minister in a minority government in Parliament, leading the United Kingdom to a chaotic exit from the European Union.
By preaching and spreading democracy and freedom to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria through active Western military intervention, these countries are today failing and failed states.
As one Singapore comedian puts it, colonisation comes from the word “colon”, out of which bad things come out. The irony is that Britain colonized Hong Kong by giving economic freedoms but not electoral democracy. And now Hong Kongers are victims of the Stockholm syndrome, where the physically free but mentally captive Hong Konger actually loves the captor country that refuses to grant Hong Kong British National (overseas) passport holders automatic right to UK citizenship.
Democracy and freedom are concepts like beauty in the eye of the beholder. They mean many things to different people, in different contexts.
Countries like Iraq and Afghanistan find that they have the right to vote, but descend quickly to tribal factionalism, religious differences and bad bureaucracies that cannot deliver law and order, personal safety or proper jobs.
They also found out that votes can be bought and sold. Electoral democracy is essentially a feedback mechanism to tell those in power what the voters don’t like or like, but does not automatically ensure that what is desired is delivered.
What this means is that the real meaning of democracy and freedom is local in practice, and not theoretical ideals that are universal to all. How democracy and freedoms are practiced are the result of complex social contracts negotiated politically at the local level.
If the protests are meant to deliver a message of dissent, the protestors have won. But protesting through violence is a no-win situation, because the more you win, the more you lose.
French political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon has recently written an important book, Good Government: Democracy beyond Elections (Harvard University Press, 2018). Rosanvallon makes the important point that the crisis of representation in Western democracies reveals some deeper discontent – that parliamentary democracy is not delivering good governance and outcomes.
Democracy (rule of people) comes from the Greek city-states that’s in contrast to aristocracy (rule of elites). In reality, Greek cities were ruled by citizens, but most residents were slaves with no rights. Slavery was abolished only in the 19th century and women were only given votes in the 20th century.
So, universal democracy is a very modern concept which Britain practiced, but did not give to her former colonies until very late before their independence.
The result is that different former colonies practiced different forms of democracy, some “guided” as under former Indonesian President Sukarno, and others evolving into permanently elected leaders, e.g. Zimbabwe under Mugabe.
The French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) idealized representative democracy into a trinity of executive, checked by the legislature and the judiciary. In the 20th century, it became recognized that a free press is the fourth pillar that ensured democratic checks and balances.
But as Professor Rosanvallon shrewdly observed, these ideals morphed in practice from Parliamentary Democracy towards Presidential Democracy, because as society became more urban, globalized and complex, the demands for executive action to solve social problems became more urgent. These gave more and more power to the executive branch, weakening parliament and putting impossible demands on the judiciary to solve political disputes.
It was therefore not surprising that in the face of everyday ineptitude in governance, many opted for strong leaders and bold executive action.
The traditional print media and guardian of social conscience was hollowed out by digital social media, so that they moved out of a “balanced, rational” debate of social issues into factional press that pushed extremist views of “Likes” and “Dislikes”, in which there are no more compromises for moderate views.
Social media became the connector of disaffected people and enabled them to “swarm”. When one faction deviated into violence “turbo-charged” by their own extreme beliefs of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, the rule of law became the rule of the swarm.
So which form of system do Hongkongers want in practice? Mob democracy?
Those who believe in law and order cannot understand why those professing to protect the rule of law were destroying it, by creating a double standard of “no amnesty for police” but “amnesty for law-breakers”.
The rule of law functions on the principle that the state, via the police, is the only legitimate channel that can take armed action in order to protect law and order.
Until the violence broke out, Hong Kong was widely admired as a beacon of civilized freedom and rule of law. Today’s vivid image is a city controlled by black-shirted gasmasks.
Democracy and freedom begin with self-discipline, recognizing that self-discipline within law and order protects your own rights as well as the rights of others.
No one has the freedom to destroy other people’s rights through violence. Mob democracy is not the rule of law. The time for violence is over. It’s time to decide which democratic system fits Hong Kong.
By removing the masks, Hong Kongers must face up to very tough choices. Negotiating through gas-masks will only end up in tears.
(The views expressed here are entirely personal to the author.)