Keeping the masses confused over their democratic rights is working well for the mainland in its administration of Hong Kong, writes Mark Douglas from the island.
Democracy – along with masses of fine particulates and diesel fumes – is in the wind at the moment in Hong Kong. Every day, the debate lurches one way or another, as the push for greater freedom and voter rights gains power. How China will manage this great leap forward towards democracy, communist-style, is a matter of global political interest. Many believe Hong Kong is essentially a test case for the rest of the nation – others fear it will result in little more than Democracy-Lite, a watered down, fat free, flavourless version of the values enjoyed in the west.
There can be little doubt, however, that the uncertainty of Hong Kong’s political future clouds business intentions and creates concerns about future stability as a finance and business hub and doorway to “the mainland”.
Media here often talk about the “road map” to future voter rights in Hong Kong – a map which is constantly being re-folded and overwritten until somehow we always seem to end up back where we started.
As I write this in April, a series of by-elections are about to be held, in May.
These have been triggered by the mass-resignation of various pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council. Their intention was to force a pseudo-referendum on the timetable for democratic reform. Beijing has responded by stating this is against Basic Law – despite it being perfectly legal. The ruling, majority, pro-Beijing parties – “elected” by a handful of carefully appointed voters – have responded in kind by refusing to give the debate oxygen.
They have refused to run candidates in the by-elections, thus denying an opportunity for a “referendum”. This is a strange form of democracy, to say the least. Refusing the very few voters who currently can vote a choice, a debate, or an opportunity to show their opinion is, dare I say it, un-democratic.
As it stands, there are some goals for the achievement of more votes for more people. But the goals keep moving, the dates keep slipping out, and who will or will not be able to vote for whom, when, is far from clear. This obfuscation by the powers that be, this slipperiness, is not going un-remarked.
The young, in particular, are taking up the debate with protests and online activism. Perhaps the old have seen too much, suffered too much, before in this city of migrants and escapees. Perhaps they know that “freedom” is a brief gift here, not a birthright. So mostly people just go about their business, trying to get rich gloriously, aiming to make enough money to provide some buffer should things go wrong again – to buy a bolt hole somewhere else to hide.
Stories here of dissidents being detained “in China” without trial, of black jails, of corruption and violence amongst communist cadres are too regular for them to ignore.
They know they are already “in China”. The money may be different. The language different. Some of the political systems softened. But make no mistake – ultimately even this Special Administrative Region is under communist rule. “China” is just over some imaginary line just over there.
They don’t have any elected leaders here – at least not how westerners understand the term.
The place is not run by a Premier or a Prime Minister or a President, but by a Chief Executive, as if this is just some business enterprise being trialled by the HQ up north.
And at any time, this gift of freedom, of doing things differently to the rest of the country, could be taken away, by decree.
The road to democracy in this “One Nation-Two Systems” outpost has, happily, so far been littered with confusion rather than corpses. How long that road may be, or where it will lead is, at least partly, up to the will and endurance of the people. “Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change”, Confucius wrote more than two thousand years ago.
Only time will tell if another of his maxims proves true in this case: “Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.” ■
*Mark Douglas is an Australian journalist and corporate media advisor based in Hong Kong.
Contact Mark at: firstname.lastname@example.org