Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Time for pan-democrats to stop mistaking wishful thinking for idealism

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kerry Kennedy

Kerry Kennedy calls on pan-democrats to adopt a new vision for democratic development that is not based on wishful thinking – and that means working with the political realities

With the end of Occupy Central, it was hoped that the city would return to normal. Yet it is not normal. The debate that caused the movement has continued and its resolution is no closer now than it was on August 31, when the central government issued its decision on Hong Kong electoral reform.

Beijing’s resolve is as strong as ever, the community remains divided and politicians of all complexions seem incapable of addressing Hong Kong’s political future. Interests are deeply entrenched and the same old arguments continue to be rehearsed. Different thinking is needed to create a future for both young and old, otherwise the city will always be captured by those whose vision is in the past rather than by a vision of Hong Kong’s evolving democratic future.

This is not to say the students got it wrong. They didn’t. They seized a moment, but – in their own words – with little thought and even less strategy. They energised otherwise passive citizens because their initial treatment by the police seemed out of proportion with their actions. Young, exuberant and idealistic, the students put their all into having the August 31 decision reversed.

Others caught onto their coat-tails, but there was never an appreciation or even understanding that when Western democratic values meet the authoritarian state, only one side can win. There is no negotiation, accommodation or compromise: it is about winning. In this case, the authoritarian state won, but you could never tell from listening and watching much community discourse.

There are now ongoing “strategies” of resistance: television images of pan-democrats symbolically tearing up the government’s report to Beijing on public sentiment in Hong Kong during the Occupy movement, legislators declaring they will veto the government’s proposal for universal suffrage to elect the chief executive in 2017, and suggestions that government bills be paid in small amounts in order to disrupt the administration of government. But to what end? What do Hong Kong’s democrats now want?

They want Chief Executive Leung Chin-ying’s resignation and they still want the reversal of the August 31 decision. How the first is related to political reform is not clear and, in any event, Leung is now more than ever a Beijing favourite, having resisted the forces of democracy in the city; and they have already been defeated on the second.

And what is on offer if they do not get their way? Community projects will be held up in the Legislative Council, financial subventions to key bodies in the city will be deferred and, best of all, by defeating the government’s proposal for political reform, Hong Kong will be stuck with the election of its chief executive by a small and unrepresentative nominating committee. Democracy will be off the agenda – not just the “genuine” democracy supported by students but even the less-than-genuine democracy approved by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

This is why a new vision is needed – a vision for democratic development that accepts political realities but doesn’t give up on democratic ideals. The history of democracy makes it clear that “genuine” democracy takes time. While the 1832 Reform Act in Britain broadened the democratic basis of British politics, it was not until 1928 that women were given the same voting rights as men. In 1901, Australia was given independence from Britain, yet Aboriginal people were not given equal voting rights until 1962.

Democracy is always a struggle – sometimes it is taken and sometimes it is given. There is an end point in terms of electoral democracy, human rights and social equality. But getting to these ends is a process that takes time and strategy. Creating Hong Kong’s vision for a democratic future has to start with political realities. The end point is not contested – but getting there needs a change of attitude. The Standing Committee’s August 31 decision is a starting point. It certainly beats a small-circle election for the city’s chief executive, even if it is not “genuine” democracy. Right now, it is all that is on offer. So why not start there?

Rejecting it out of hand will retard democratic development for the foreseeable future. Nothing could please Beijing more. It will be argued that both national and local governments tried, in line with the Basic Law. Democrats will be blamed and portrayed as “the spoilers”. Beijing wins again with this scenario.

Hong Kong people deserve more. A small touch of democracy in this part of China may light the way for the rest of the country. It is a small step but a great hope. But the posturing has to stop and reality needs to take hold.

Either Hong Kong can move forward or it can remain part of the apparatus of the authoritarian state.

Ironically, the choice is with the city’s democrats. It is a choice about the future and whether there are people willing to move forward rather than remain captured by rhetoric and ghosts of the past.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education

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