After Everybody Becomes Pro-Democracy

(Ming Pao)  After Everybody Becomes Pro-Democracy.  By Leung Man-tao (梁文道).  April 12, 2007.

[in translation]

The political map for Hong Kong is really different now.  Very quickly, we will enter an era in which everybody is a democrat and the term "democrat" will have no meaning anymore.

First, we take look at a piece of political gossip news in the April 11 issue of <Ming Pao>.  According to the report, twenty core members of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong arrived early this month in Beijing to study at the National School of Administration.  One of the class lecturers was Professor Yu Keping, who is known as a member of Hu Jintao's think-tank.  Yu Keping not only lectured the DAB students about the latest western democratic ideas, but he also gave out copies of his bestselling book <Democracy Is A Good Thing> (This is the book mentioned by Alan Leong at the Hong Kong Chief Execution election debate forum).  Afterwards, the newspaper reporter reflected: "It is not known whether this lecture will change the idea of 'love the country, love Hong Kong, love the party' for universal suffrage."

In saying this, the reporter sets the premise that the DAB has been resisting democratic universal suffrage all along.  After Yu Keping, who has been promoting democratic ideas recently, gave this lecture to them, their ideas about democracy may be challenged and they may gradually change their original positions and views.

Although the D in DAB stands for democracy, most Hong Kong people will not mistake them as a pro-democracy political party.  In like manner, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, but nobody believes that it is a democratic county.  Since the Second World War, even if "democracy" is not a universal value, it is at least a universally known term.  Apart from a small minority, nobody will openly oppose "democracy as being something good."  As to how widespread democracy is, many people are concerned that there are shams that are passing off as the real thing.  So it is necessary to spend a lot of time and effort to distinguish the "real democracy" from the fake ones.  In the case of Hong Kong, everybody thinks that only those who want universal suffrage as quickly as possible are the "real democrats" and those who want to delay democratic progress with any number of reasons are conservatives who say that they want democracy but are actually reactionaries.

Let us put aside the debate about real versus fake democracy for a moment.  Instead, we look at the substantive political effect of the linguistic term "democracy" in Hong Kong.  First of all, democracy obviously refers to a certain political ideal for society and the corresponding system.  Apart from being a descriptive noun, it has other usage (such as being used as an adjective).  We usually describe a certain political view as "democratic" or a certain political figure as "democratic."  During election time, many political parties raise the banner of democracy in order to attract voters.  This is because democracy is also a label (or tag) and it is the mainstay that dominated the Hong Kong political spectrum for the last 20 years.  On one side of the political spectrum are the various pan-democrats ranging from moderate to extreme; on the other side of are the doggedly conservative pro-China and business groups.  The difference lies in their views about how democracy should move forward.

The conservative forces of the pro-China and business groups are always awkward in this political spectrum, because nearly everybody agrees that "democracy is a good thing."  Therefore, they do not dare to oppose democracy publicly.  Occasionally some political figure or a very small number of scholars come forth to question the system of democracy and offer the "governance by wise people"; they are either shredded to pieces by critics, or else they become jokes that nobody pays any attention to.  Someone might argue that democracy does not equal universal suffrage, but the Basic Law said clearly that universal suffrage will ultimately be implemented in Hong Kong.  So the argument then turns to the definition of "universal suffrage."  Someone attempted to argue that universal suffrage is not in conflict with the retention of the functional constituencies in the Legislative Council, but the result is also risible.  No matter what, in the debate about democracy, the conservatives are the weaker side who are in a defensive position.  Occasionally, they may play the "patriotism" card to accuse their opponents of possibly being backed by foreign powers.  But they have never been able to seize the authority to interpret democracy and attack the democratic position of their opponents.

By contrast, the pan-democrats are in a different position.  You can say that they are extremists, you can criticize that they don't know how to govern, and you can even wonder if they have ulterior motives.  But you cannot object to their ideas.  "Democratic" is an adjective which carries a positive value.  If you take over the title "democratic," you are naturally standing on moral high ground.

Democracy or not?  For many citizens, this is like a moral question about good-versus-evil.  Apart from that question, everything else is just about the details.  Therefore, the political map in Hong Kong is somewhat similar to that of Taiwan.  It is not that there are no rightists or leftists, but the questions of democracy-versus-no-democracy and unification-versus-independence are bigger and more important.  Therefore, the political figures and the media spend a lot of time polishing these moral labels to the point where there are no other major differences apart from democracy-versus-no-democracy and unification-versus-independence.

And yet, there has been a huge change over the past one or two years.  It is not known whether the Hong Kong government and the conservatives are becoming more open, more rational or more wily, but they are no longer questioning democracy, they are no longer opposing universal suffrage (except for a small minority) and they are actively discussing democracy and universal suffrage.  So this has become: "You talk democracy; I talk democracy too.  You are a democrat; I am a democrat too."  One of the turning points is when the government's political reform package was rejected by the Legislative Council two years ago.  From that moment on, the government and the conservatives suddenly seized the initiative and accused their opponents of "impeding the progress of democracy."  This is an extraordinary turn that has never occurred before.  More recently, with the background of Hu-Wen pushing for democracy, Donald Tsang even promised to "go for a big play" with the Hong Kong citizens to "resolve" the issue of universal suffrage during this term.  By comparison, then, what is the big deal of the DAB listening to Yu Keping's lecture?  They have not been avoiding the democracy issue for a while already and they are even putting forth proposals for universal suffrage.

So the pressure is now back on the pan-democrats.  When your opponents no longer oppose democratic universal suffrage and they are even offering various proposals for democracy and roadmaps to universal suffrage, you can claim credit for your work in the democracy movement because your ideas are now universal.  But at the same time, this means that your unique status is being diluted.  If even Donald Tsang and the DAB want to take action on the issue of democracy, will the moral standing of the democrats gradually fade among the Hong Kong citizens?

In reviewing the political changes over the past few years, we can detect approximately two stages.  In the first stage, the democrats seized the issue of democracy while the conservatives practiced evasion by using the choice between "politics or economy" to accuse their opponents of only talking politics but having no interest in economic livelihood.  The debate over democracy during this stage was a genuinely political one.  

We are now in a second stage, in which the conservatives and the government are engaging political issues such as democracy and universal suffrage.  Now, democratic universal suffrage in Hong Kong is a social consensus that nobody opposes.  In this stage, the pan-democrats must spend more time and effort on differentiating between true and fake democracy, or else their opponents will cleverly frame this into a technical debate among various proposals and roadmaps.  In other words, the issue of democracy-versus-non-democracy will be "de-politicized" into a technical matter of how to realize democracy.  When democracy has evolved into a technical and methodological issue, it can hardly remain an effective political label/tag.  At this time, we need to use a more profound political imagination to come up with a different narrative for democracy as well as a different political spectrum.