Genuine universal franchise is “Western” and not “gradual and orderly”?

There have been another tidal wave of commentaries and remarks suggesting that democracy defined as genuine universal suffrage by 2017 is “Western” and goes against the “gradual and orderly” principle.

This argument would have been less problematic had I not begun to hear it in the 1980s. See “before 1997.”

I just remembered my 10-year-old commentaries. Really, 10 years old! Why are we debating the same issues 10 years, 20 years later? Why is it that time is somehow frozen in HK?

“SAR must take long-delayed steps to democracy,” Weekend Standard, Volume 1, No. 6, March 20-21, 2004, p. A55

“Confucianism and Patriotism: Speak from the heart,” South China Morning Post, Feb 14, 2004, p. A13

Heaven’s Mandate lies with the people, South China Morning Post, July 11, 2003, p. A15.

For more in-depth analyses, see “Citizenship Rights in Historical China” in The Edinburgh Companion to the History of Democracy, edited by Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell, Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp. 60-70;and “The China Dream: Revival of What Historical Greatness?” in Arthur Shuhfan Ding and Chih-shian Liou, eds., China Dreams: China’s New Leadership and Future Impacts, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd, 2015, pp. 3-32.


“SAR must take long-delayed steps to democracy,” Weekend Standard (Hong Kong), Volume 1, No. 6, March 20-21, 2004, p. A55

Xu Chongde, a former Basic Law drafter, argued that democracy does not mean universal suffrage. He also suggested that Hong Kong people make a clear definition of “what real democracy is and what fake democracy is.”

Mr. Xu’s opinion echoes those of Tung Chee-hwa and other pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong. Mr. Tung said on March 4 that Hong Kong’s constitutional development must “take full account of Hong Kong’s actual situation” and it “cannot reach the sky in a single step.”

Similarly, Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong chairman Ma Lik argued in a newspaper opinion piece that Hong Kong people should build “a democracy that fits Hong Kong” and that “it is important that we do not equate universal suffrage with democracy.”

Does universal suffrage mean “fake democracy”? Does full democracy in 2007-08 mean a “single step” to the sky? Do direct elections of the Chief Executive and all Legislative Councilors contradict the “actual situation” of Hong Kong?

In a seminal article entitled “What Democracy Is…. and Is Not,” political scientists Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl define democracy as “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.”

Real democracy means that “control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.” Tung admonished Hong Kong people not to deviate from the “executive-led principle.” He was merely stating the obvious. All governments around the world are led by executive branches. In a real democracy the executive answers to the people and that the legislature exercises genuine oversight over the executive. In contrast, in a fake democracy the legislature is merely a rubber stamp for executive proposals.

Real democracy also means that all adults should have not just the right to vote, but also the right to run for elective offices. Tung and Beijing officials have cited Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that “patriots must form the main body” of those who govern Hong Kong. While Deng’s definition of patriotism made in 1984 was well reasoned, government officials have recently reinterpreted patriotism to mean blind submission to the party line. The proposed mechanisms to bar government critics from running for office would certainly take Hong Kong down the road to fake democracy.

Deng Xiaoping remarked in 1987: “Hong Kong’s system of government should not be completely Westernized; no Western system can be copied in toto.” Along the same line, Ma Lik argued that the notion of “a one-size-fit-all formula for democracy is naïve.”

Such a view conflates pluralism with relativism. As the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi argues, no single type of Western democracy exists. Political scientists Schmitter and Karl similarly point out that democracy does not consist of a single unique set of institutions. American democracy, British democracy, French democracy, Swiss democracy, Indian democracy, Japanese democracy, Taiwanese democracy, and so on represent different democratic institutions designed to fit their distinctive social, cultural, and economic conditions. In all these cases, the critical issue is that the people are empowered to exercise effective oversight over their governments.

It is true by definition that political institutions in Hong Kong are not exactly the same as those in other countries East or West. If Xu and Tung are serious about establishing real democracy in Hong Kong, then Hong Kong must follow democratic principles and ensure it has a government that truly answers to the people.

Ma Lik seems to suggest that small-circle functional constituencies and selection committees present the best way to build a democracy that fits Hong Kong. These arguments for fake democracy often invoke the Chinese condition. Unfortunately, such views are in fact European inventions. For instance, John Stuart Mill advocated that educated and professional classes should be allotted multiple votes. Mill also believed that “barbarous” or “backward” peoples were incapable of representative government. It is paradoxical that those who claim to be staunchly patriotic and anti-colonial are now resorting to similar excuses once used to justify British colonialism. In doing so they are clearly depreciating the political talent of Hong Kong people.

Tung highlights the principle of gradual and orderly progress in the Basic Law. However, it is difficult to understand why full democracy is analogous to the impossible dream of reaching the sky with one step. Discussions over Hong Kong’s political reforms did not just begin with the formation of the three-person task force headed by Donald Tsang. By 2007, it will have been ten years since the handover in 1997. Moreover, the debates had started during the Sino-British negotiations and the drafting of the Basic Law in the 1980s. Compared with other Asian democracies, Hong Kong is an embarrassing laggard. Tung should explain why he presumes Hong Kong Chinese are uniquely incapable of full democracy.

Xu is right. Hong Kong people need to differentiate between real democracy and fake democracy. It is about time for Hong Kong to take the long-delayed steps toward real democracy.


“Confucianism and Patriotism: Speak from the heart,” South China Morning Post, Feb 14, 2004, p. A13

On Tuesday, Xinhua announced that the principle of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” means that patriots should rule the special administrative region and that they should form the “main body” of its leaders.

Ma Lik, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, interpreted the message to mean that those who are “anti-Beijing” and those “disrupting Hong Kong society” could not form the backbone of the city.

Xiao Weiyun, a mainland legal adviser, argued that politicians who opposed the Article 23 legislation are unpatriotic and suggested that a study be conducted to find out who the patriots are.

If pro-democracy legislators and opinion leaders who led the July 1 demonstrations are disqualified from ruling Hong Kong, then what is left of the promises written in the Basic Law? Does patriotism mean strict adherence to the official line? Are critics of government policies not patriotic?

Hong Kong people are being put to an unusual test. The media is now flooded with divergent interpretations of patriotism. In understanding patriotism in a Chinese society, it may help to think about the long-cherished Confucian tradition to speak from one’s moral conscience and to criticise those in power.

Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may have unwittingly hinted at such a reflection in his reply at a legislative session on Wednesday, when he said: “I believe we all know in our hearts what is patriotism and loving Hong Kong.”

Mr Tsang’s suggestion that we look to our hearts points towards the Confucian doctrine of moral conscience. Confucian classics do not presume that rulers hold the key to what is right and wrong; rather, “the heart of right and wrong” is inherent in human nature.

Beijing advisers typically conflate patriotism with blind submission. They should learn from this advice in The Analects: “Do not deceive [the ruler]; rather, oppose him.” Another passage argues that if the ruler is not good and no one disobeys, that would be tantamount to destroying the state.

Other Confucian classics such as the Zuozhuan and Guoyu extend the obligation to criticise rulers to all walks of life, listing historians, teachers, blind musicians, artisans and other commoners.

A famous story in the Guoyu describes how a tyrant put to death all those who criticised him. When he proudly announced: “I have succeeded in silencing the criticism”, a duke remarked that “stopping up the mouths of the people is more dangerous than stopping up a river”.

The Mencius even advocates the doctrine of popular sovereignty. It is commonly known that Mencius believed that “the people are of supreme importance”. This text also argues that the Mandate of Heaven rests with the people because “heaven does not speak; it sees and hears as the people see and hear”. In Mencian political theory, rulers are mere servants of the people; they enjoy the Mandate of Heaven only if they serve the people.

Beijing advisers should also learn from Confucian classics how to distinguish between the state and the ruler. The term “gong” originally meant “duke” or the ruler in the Spring and Autumn period, it gradually evolved to mean “public” and then “fair” in the Warring States period. At the same time, although the term “zhong” originally referred to loyalty to the ruler (not as blind submission, but as a feudal code of honour) in the former period, it evolved to mean loyalty to the state in the latter period. It is on this nuanced understanding of loyalty that classical thinkers advocated free criticism of rulers in the interest of the state.

It may be said that another Confucian principle of harmony advises against criticism. However, harmony is not a synonym for conformity or unity. Harmony certainly does not mean the suppression of differences. Confucian classics, in fact, emphasise “harmony without conformity”. In music, harmony is best achieved through the blending of different sounds, but in a way that each instrument can still be heard.

In politics, harmony is best achieved in an inclusive system in which the voices of all walks of life are heard, not in a tyrannical system in which dissenting voices are suppressed.

The Confucian tradition is remarkably consistent with the relevant literature in modern political science. Under authoritarian rule, state-society relations are typically confrontational because rulers impose their will on resistant populations. In a full democracy, in contrast, societal players are more likely to voluntarily co-operate with the state because they have a say in choosing who runs it.

The Xinhua statement also mentions that Hong Kong’s political reforms should serve stability and prosperity in the long-term. As the Guoyu understands it, long-term stability cannot be achieved by damming up the mouths of the people. Silencing of dissent can merely create short-term volcanic stability, with mounting discontent waiting to erupt at any moment.

At the same time, world history shows that long-term prosperity is best achieved when there is robust public oversight against corrupt practices. When the state serves the interests of the broader society rather than those of unaccountable rulers, the government is more likely to achieve stability and prosperity in the long-term.

Beijing leaders and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa have recently advocated Confucian virtues. They should learn proper lessons from our Confucian tradition. It is patriotic for Hong Kong people to speak their minds and aspire to full democracy.


Heaven’s Mandate lies with the people, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), July 11, 2003, p. A15.

The problems over the National Security Bill and its deferral have switched the focus of political debate to democratic reforms. One of the many roadblocks on the road to full democracy is the existence of functional constituency seats which provide half of the members of the current Legislative Council.

Functional representation gives members of some privileged sectors a second vote. This mode of representation clearly goes against the one-person-one-vote democratic principle. Chinese leaders and local business elites claim that this method offers a means to introduce democratization at a “gradual” and “orderly” pace. Pro-democracy activists argue that Hong Kong people are ready for full democracy and should not have to wait any longer.

If functional representation merely slows down the process of democratic transition and will eventually lead to full democracy, then the costs of waiting would not be intolerable. However, this mode of representation may well erode fragile democracy and even the well-established rule of law. Until the Liberal Party changed its mind in the last minutes of the Article 23 debate, business elites who were chosen through functional constituencies were prepared to vote for a bill that would threaten the fundamental freedoms cherished by Hong Kong people.

Functional representation was first introduced in Hong Kong by the British colonial government in consultation with the Beijing government. While it is not difficult to see why Beijing desired electoral rules that would obstruct full democracy, it is more puzzling why London would agree to do so. British politicians who signed away Hong Kong’s future somehow forgot an important chapter in their own history.

Representative assemblies first emerged in the medieval period when kings and princes realized that representation was a necessary concession in exchange for new taxes. In the subsequent modern period, however, European kings and queens one after another eroded medieval constitutionalism and established absolutism. In the name of national security, European rulers subverted constitutionalism by packing assemblies with supporters, intimidating and bribing representatives, or bypassing assemblies altogether.

English monarchs were less successful than their French or Spanish counterparts in eroding medieval constitutionalism. The English Parliament was formed by geographically-based representatives. But French parlements, Spanish cortes and other assemblies in Latin Europe were formed by separate estates of the nobility, the clergy, and the burgher class. Such were the early forms of functional constituencies.

An historical sociologist Thomas Ertman explains the importance of geographical versus functional representation in his acclaimed Birth of the Leviathan. Members of functionally-based estates were motivated to protect their own group-specific privileges and were thus more susceptible to rulers’ tactics of carrots and sticks. In contrast, geographically-based representatives had to be accountable to local constituencies. For such representatives, it was in their self-interest to serve the public interest and strengthen constitutional checks on the Crown. Geographical representation thus saved England’s constitutional tradition.

Remarkably, the geographically-based Parliament also helped to facilitate England’s rise from a secondary power to world dominance. In the late seventeenth century, English parliamentarians pushed for comprehensive fiscal and administrative reforms which dramatically strengthened England’s economic and military prowess. In comparison, French and Spanish nobles, clerics, and burghers continued to bargain for special privileges which encouraged corruption and diverted resources away from productive activities. Bourbon France was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy.

Constitutional England soon outcompeted the much larger absolutist France in the eighteenth century. Constitutional England also kicked off the Industrial Revolution. The combination of military and industrial power further allowed Britain to establish a world empire in the nineteenth century.

The lessons from history are clear: geographical representation facilitated constitutionalism and development in England while functional representation was directly responsible for constitutional erosion and indirectly for economic stagnation in Latin Europe. Irrespective of why Britain introduced functional representation to colonial Hong Kong, it makes no sense for the Hong Kong SAR to stick to a shameful European practice that may well lead us down the drain.

Tung Chee Hwa says Hong Kong Chinese bear some duty for “the national dignity and the glory of the Chinese race.” It is for this reason that Hong Kong must preserve the rule of law and move further on the path to constitutional democracy. Let us not forget what made Britain a world hegemon and China the “sickman of Asia” – and why China lost Hong Kong to Britain.

It may be said that Chinese societies should develop “democracy with Chinese characteristics” rather than follow Western practices. Singapore’s senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew observes that the one-person-one-vote principle is Western and so it may be more Asian to give some people two votes. But the practice of giving some privileged individuals more than one vote is hardly “Asian” to European historians.

At the same time, Asian democracy can take stock from the Confucian tradition. As other Asian leaders Lee Teng-hui and Kim Dae Jung understand it, the Mandate of Heaven in the Mencian formulation rests with the people. Although Hong Kong is promised a “high degree of autonomy,” Hong Kong lags far behind Taiwan and South Korea on the road to full democracy.

For the next Hong Kong government to reclaim the mandate to rule, it is necessary to not just shelve the National Security Bill, but also to scrap functional constituencies in the elections of the next Legislative Council – and, hopefully, of the next Chief Executive.

Victoria Hui is assistant professor of Political Science in the University of Illinois. She is author of a forthcoming book War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe.

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One response to “Genuine universal franchise is “Western” and not “gradual and orderly”?

  1. Pingback: HK and the US civil rights movement | Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement

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