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Hong Kong’s example

Li Datong
7 February 2007

The next election for chief executive of Hong Kong, to be held on 25 March 2007, is attracting an unusual amount of attention - finally, there will be more than one candidate campaigning for the post! Alan Leong (Leong Kah Kit), a member of the legislative council (LegCo) and leader of Hong Kong's Civic Party, announced on 31 January 2007 that he has received 100 nominations from the election committee, as required for participation in the election.

As Hong Kong approaches the tenth anniversary of its establishment as a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, it has finally taken an important step on the path to democracy.

The question of whether or not Chinese society can join the mainstream international community by establishing a constitutional government - with checks and balances provided by separation of legislature, executive and judiciary, and where transfer of power is carried out through lawful elections contested by different political parties - is both theoretical and practical.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper.

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China’s contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

Before it came to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made many expressions of its desire to pursue democracy, both in public proclamations from its leaders, and in the large amounts of propaganda that it transmitted via the media to the Chinese people. The majority of the Chinese people, especially those in academic circles, supported the establishment of the communist regime precisely because it believed these declarations. Unfortunately, once in power the party went back on its word; so began a period of autocratic rule unprecedented in Chinese history.

The Chinese people paid the price, not only in terms of the tens of millions of lives lost, but in the damage done to people's creativity and sense of morals and ethics. Similarly, there was no democracy worth speaking of in the periods when the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) ruled the mainland and Taiwan. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that people get the leaders they deserve; after over 2000 years of autocratic rule in China, many people were starting to wonder whether there was some kind of "cultural gene" that was preventing the transition to democracy.

Fortunately, before his death, Chiang Ching-kuo - who in 1978 succeeded his father Chiang Kai-shek as Taiwan's president - woke up to the global trend and wisely ended censorship of the press and the ban on opposition political parties. Thus Taiwan began the transition to democracy.

In the last twenty years, Taiwan has experienced a peaceful transfer of authority, and under a democratic system the people have begun to get to know democracy, to learn democracy. Although not everything has always gone as may have been hoped, the transformation of society has been largely successful.

The Chinese people finally saw an alternative view of history: it was the political system that defined the nature of the people, and not the other way around. The fallacy propagated by the CCP that "the western democratic model is not suited to China's particular circumstances" collapsed in on itself. Whether or not the mainland and Taiwan can be unified will certainly come to depend largely on democracy. Without democracy on the mainland, there can be no hope of unification.

Also on China and democracy in openDemocracy:

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, "Taiwan’s dual election: democracy and national identity"
(19 March 2004)

Christine Loh, " Is the Chinese world discovering democracy?"
(5 July 2004)

Christine Loh, "Hong Kong’s democratic road: an interview"
(16 September 2004)

Agnes Chong, "Hong Kong marches for 'one person, one vote'"
(8 December 2005)

If one accepts that the influence of the Taiwan experience has been diluted by Taiwan's isolation across the straits and by the narrow-minded nationalism of people on the mainland, then the progress of democracy in Hong Kong becomes even more significant as a model. Throughout more than a century of British control, the people of Hong Kong had freedom but no democracy. This has been the final legacy of colonial rule. Now, only ten years after Hong Kong's return to China, and despite the efforts of the party to hinder the establishment of a democratic system, genuine competitive elections are springing to life.

According to a recent survey by Hong Kong Chinese University, 88% of voters think that the Hong Kong chief-executive election should be contested by at least two people. 70% of voters support Alan Leong's participation in the election. Interestingly, according to the same survey, levels of support for Leong are far lower than for the current chief executive, Donald Tsang. This shows that no matter whom they support, Hong Kong voters agree that an "election" with only one candidate is not democracy. With such a democratic consensus, Hong Kong is only a step away from fully democratic elections.

Once all the Chinese territories that are not governed by the Communist Party have undergone the transition to democracy, how many people will still believe that "the western democratic model is not suited to China's particular circumstances?"

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