Does Hong Kong need democracy?

Fresh bouts of yearning for democracy resurfaced in Hong Kong on New Year's Day. Such eruption of popular sentiment for democracy has been endemic in Hong Kong ever since the cosmopolitan city reverted back to the Communist regime of the People's Republic of China from Great Britain in 1997 after the expiry of a 99-year lease under what China bemoaned as an 'unequal treaty' imposed on it under 'gunboat' diplomacy.

What triggered the latest round of outpouring of the democratic urge was Beijing's move to proclaim part of the high-speed rail being built in Hong Kong connecting its neighbouring cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou in mainland China. Many of the protesters resented the 'co-location' agreement that would bring part of the new rail terminus in Kowloon in the heart of Hong Kong under mainland law.

It was against this backdrop that thousands of Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists marched through the streets of the city. Protesters, who included even middle-aged and elderly residents, held up banners and voiced their concerns to 'protect Hong Kong'. It was a peaceful protest.

As always, the city government handled the protest adroitly, without aggravating the situation. Later in January, Agnes Chow, a former leader of the mass Umbrella Movement that called for political reform, had her nomination rejected for supporting 'self-determination' for the semi-autonomous Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Hong Kong, from its very inception, was primarily an economic entity. It was born out of the trading relations between United Kingdom and China. Government became imperative to facilitate trade and commerce. Its political identity has been incidental and secondary.

When Britain left Hong Kong, both the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China worked out a formula of "one country, two systems" for the governance of the territory. Under this political contrivance, it was envisaged that extant political institutions and the economic system in Hong Kong would continue to exist for 50 years from July 1997.

Hong Kong thus became a 'Special Administrative Region' under Beijing's sovereignty. Political stability in Hong Kong is an imperative for economic prosperity in the region.

Realising the consequences of adversarial politics, the colonial government never felt the necessity to introduce direct election to its Legislative Council. The Legislative Council was indirectly elected. The last British Governor Chris Patten, however, in the twilight years of his rein introduced a democratic package, which was criticised by China.

As envisaged in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, there has been limited direct election to the Legislative Council. It is against this backdrop that Hong Kong witnesses periodic surges for democracy in the form of sit-in street protests, called 'Umbrella Revolution', which gained currency in December 2014, when Beijing issued a decision by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system.

Gradual change

What Hong Kong needs is the rule of law, a vigilant judiciary and incremental democracy and not the exuberance of democracy and compulsions of electoral politics, which will do more harm than good to the city and its reputation as a centre of trade, commerce and finance.

While China knows that full-fledged democracy in Hong Kong may lead to similar demands on the mainland, it also knows that suppression of democracy in Hong Kong will echo in Taiwan. China wants to replicate "one country, two systems" in Taiwan. Change with continuity is the best option for Hong Kong and not an abrupt and radical turn around.

Democracy does not subscribe to a "one size fits all" approach. The rationale of equating democracy with headcount is questionable in Hong Kong. There are good governments, fair legal systems, and harmonious societies in countries where elected legislatures fall short by the standards of self-appointed arbiters of democracy. Hong Kong, by those standards, may not qualify to be a democracy.

Yet, the rule of law is applicable in Hong Kong as much as in any other democracy. What is important is that democratic temper can be instilled and cultivated even without resorting to the exuberance of democracy. Gradual and orderly change is what Hong Kong needs.

The robustness of the rule of law and the agility of the judiciary in Hong Kong was vindicated when Joshua Wong and two other leading Hong Kong democracy activists won an appeal against their jail terms in the city's highest court in early February. Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were jailed in August last year for their role in the Umbrella Movement.

While the clamour for democracy in Hong Kong is fine, what is more important perhaps is the rule of law, independence of judiciary and freedom of press, which Hong Kong has nurtured so well under British tutelage.

(The writer is a China scholar and a former senior fellow with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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