Form or substance?
If you are a democracy sceptic, this is a line you will have heard countless times: yes, democracy is a terrible way to govern but everything else is far worse. Count on hearing it many more times as Hong Kong sharpens its focus on what kind of democracy best fits us now that Beijing has said we can have it. But is there still as much appetite to debate democracy when everyone is being spooked by two other d-words - depression and deflation?Some economic doomsayers are now actually uttering the two dreaded words, warning a fearful world that something far worse than a simple recession could trip us all into a deep, dark hole of prolonged joblessness, bankruptcies and food lines. So, while you’re in that hole, will you be thinking about the right to vote or feeding your family? That prompts a chicken-or-egg question. Which should come first, democracy or feeding the people?
China’s leaders, of course, already had that worked out long ago. They have a ready answer whenever democracy’s flag-bearers challenge their authoritarian rule. Feed the hungry first, freedom can come later. That’s the mantra that has allowed them to move at glacial speed towards political empowerment of the people. It was a mantra that western leaders mocked as an excuse to thwart democracy until George W. Bush came up with his own “war on terror” mantra which provided the west its own cover to thwart freedoms.
Now, with the world’s economy burning to the ground and everyone looking to China as a fire hose, maybe we should wonder if it could have achieved the lofty role of global firefighter during these troubled times had it put freedom first and feeding the people later.
Let’s also wonder if the combination of greed, deregulation, and ideological clashes that sparked the fire in the United States, which then spread across the world, could have happened in China, which combined authoritarian rule and state-controlled capitalism to achieve the prosperity that democracies are supposed to produce.
Note that no one is arguing Hong Kong could more effectively fight the recession we’re facing if we had full democracy. Anyone who makes such an argument need only be reminded that the economic meltdown began in the western democracies.
Western leaders made a point of repeating, after the September 11 terror attacks, that the world had changed forever. The world did change, but mostly for the west which, for the first time, experienced vast-scale terrorism first-hand. What has changed the world far more, and on a far greater scale, is the current global recession. It is an enemy that is attacking every country, unlike the Islamic terrorism that targeted mostly the west.
A changed world can prompt fresh thinking on old, tried and tested ways. The current economic mess has certainly done that, forcing us all to take stock of what brought us down this path and daring us to take a fork in the road to something new. Should we wonder if we can do that with democracy, too? The old, tried and tested way has worked reasonably well for some of today’s democracies. But will it work for tomorrow’s? Mr Bush’s failure to quickly force Iraq into a western-style democracy is instructive.
So is Hong Kong’s measured move towards democracy. First, it lifted the people out of poverty, including the flood of refugees fleeing mainland communism. The prosperity that followed made the people picky, which in turn made the government more transparent, the judiciary truly independent, civil rights better protected and the media freer.
Building the foundation stones first, as Hong Kong did, and then shaping the final layer of democracy to fit the community, is a different way of getting the same result. It has worked well for Hong Kong when matched against places like the Philippines.
The world is in the mood for change. The old world order is no longer durable. Should we look afresh at how tomorrow’s democracies reach their goal by letting them decide if the chicken or the egg should come first? China’s path towards democracy is not unlike Hong Kong’s model. Who knows, it could even work in Iraq.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster:firstname.lastname@example.org