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Hong Kong's fight and the future of China

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24 October 2014 14:30

'The umbrella revolution won't give Hong Kong democracy, protesters should stop calling for it' says Eric X Li, a vocal advocate of the CCP's authoritarian model. 'This is about inequality, not politics, so democracy can't fix the problem.'

Actually, if Hong Kong did have universal suffrage, it is quite conceivable its citizens would elect a populist leader running on redistributive policies. 'Tyranny of the majority' is precisely what Hong Kong's elites fear. Chief Executive CY Leung crassly told foreign reporters this week that allowing public nominations for his post 'would give too much power to poor and working-class residents.' Inequality is a major source of unhappiness and property is the root cause of Hong Kong's inequality. A progressive populist could raise Hong Kong's tax rate and flood the real estate market with land and free housing.

Li is wrong that universal suffrage couldn't bring that about.

But what about his broader arguments? Eric Li praises China's government as responsive, meritocratic and efficient, especially in delivering economic development. He further argues that it is representative because it is politically, and not just economically, legitimate and practices a consultative, 'consensual' style of executive deliberation. China has the system that's right for its present needs, Li argues, and surveys of citizen satisfaction would concur. By contrast, Li can fluently cite a dismal litany of failed electoral democracies.

Francis Fukuyama addresses this paradox in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. He says that a well-functioning society needs three building blocks: a strong state, rule of law and public accountability, delivered in that sequence. Hong Kong's protesters are demanding the third element, while China itself works on the second, so perhaps the tension between them is understandable. China's state media has praised Fukuyama's book as a vindication of its cautious, paternalistic approach. Fukuyama himself has wondered where China is heading. He argues that China, which built a modern state two millenia before Europe, still lacks an impersonal, impartial legal system.

The Communist Party's Fourth Plenum this week focused on 'governance according to law.' The Plenum may disappoint foreign observers, but Xi Jinping rightly wants 'power confined within a cage' of regulation, meaning a continued draconian campaign on corruption, less local interference in courts, and hopefully a lower caseload for judges and improved transparency in sentencing. Xi Jinping's political actions have been strongly centralising, and it is clear Communist Party rule will be strengthened. Officials offer a circular justification: the Party wrote the law, so there is no conflict between its authority and the proper application of justice. 

Hu Shuli writes this week that China's original 1979 'rule of law' was a traumatised reaction to the Cultural Revolution's 'rule of the people.' Today the Party's power over society is immensely greater. She courageously opines that now 'the rule of law is fundamentally incompatible with an authoritarian system.' But a true 'separation of powers' is not going to happen; in fact the term is an official taboo. Even 'constitutionalism' is seen as a seditious attack on 'the people's democratic dictatorship'.

The country has no shortage of laws; it's the selective prosecution of them that's the problem. Foreign legal scholars like Jerome Cohen and Carl Minzner have expertly documented an arbitrary 'rule by law' culture that has undermined societal trust by created an overweening, unanswerable bureaucracy.

Which brings us back to the problem of Hong Kong, the well-functioning civil society without a vote. The students on the street are fighting for freedoms they already possess, as much as the right to new ones. They mistrust the Party's monopoly over all forms of power, including the judiciary and the media, and there is fear of a regression of public accountability.

It is worth considering that we are already almost 20 years into the 50-year 'One Country Two Systems' framework. We cannot imagine how China will look in 2047; yet on current trends its legal system will still be vastly different than Hong Kong's. Probably in another decade, the reality of that impending collision will start to sink in. History may record Occupy Central as the first tremor of concern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Pasu Au Yeung.

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