Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, then US president George H. W. Bush proclaimed the death of communism in his State of the Union address.
In that same year, 1992, we saw the publication of The End of History and the Last Man by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in which he argues that Western liberal democracy signals the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. The liberal capitalist democracy of the West is, in his view, the ultimate form of government.
The truth is, of course, that communist China did not fall with Bush’s pronouncement. In 1987, the party’s then general secretary Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) announced that China was at the primary stage of socialism, opening the way to allow the country to build a socialist society with capitalist tools. The theory of the primary stage of socialism effectively placed communism in the shrine of remote ideological goals. Not only is such a goal not to be achieved, but the move also put the topic off limits for a serious discussion, at least not for a long time to come anyway.
China’s spectacular economic success over the past 25 years, under the rule of a communist regime using capitalist tools, has forced Fukuyama to re-examine the conclusion he drew a quarter of a century ago. In his 2014 book, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama redefined the three pillars required for a progressive and stable society. They are: a strong and modern government, the rule of law, and accountability.
Fukuyama emphasises that there should be a balance between the need for strong government and upholding the law and accountability, and public policy needs to reflect the people’s will and fulfil public purpose.
He makes a distinction between procedural accountability and substantive accountability. To him, excessive checks and balances on state action give disproportionate representation to powerful, highly mobilised minority interest groups. In a system where the mechanisms to enforce the will of the majority are weaker than ever, this will result in the government’s inability to make decisions. Fukuyama calls this state of affairs a “vetocracy”, a sign of political decay in the United States.
Hong Kong’s version of a “vetocracy” is uniquely anti-government by nature. Power is wielded by a minority group of politicians and anti-government activists who have gained a disproportionate amount of media attention. Their agenda is to block almost every major government proposal.
Last year, the widely supported Medical Registration (Amendment) Bill 2016 failed to pass in the Legislative Council because of the filibustering instigated by one doctor and supported by a group of pan-democratic legislators. Meanwhile, outside the chamber, a small group of activists broadcast their opposition in relentless demonstrations. This is a good example of a veto by adhering to procedural accountability.
In Hong Kong’s vetocracy, a small group of people oppose proposals put forward by the government, but in most cases, their opposition is not based on the content of the proposal. Rather, it is directed at the Hong Kong government, and against Beijing if it played any part in shaping the proposal.
Deep in their hearts, many pan-democratic and localist legislators and social activists are anti-communist.
More than that, many of them refuse to accept that China has a role to play in local affairs. In short, they refuse to accept communist China’s unquestionable sovereignty over Hong Kong.
In a recent commentary published in a Chinese-language newspaper, a Catholic priest observed that some Hongkongers have, until now, openly or covertly refused to accept that the government on the mainland is a legitimate government. The priest said that understanding this, many puzzling issues can be explained, including the huge amount of chaos seen here since Hong Kong’s return to China.
Bearing this in mind, it is not difficult to foresee the coming of another storm. Another veto campaign based on procedural accountability will be mounted against the Palace Museum deal with Beijing that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor made without prior public consultation.
I dare say that if the Palace Museum deal had been put forward before 1997 by the colonial government without public consultation, there would not have been a public uproar. During the colonial era, there was a general acceptance of the political reality that colonial Hong Kong was not a democracy, and plans put forward by the colonial government would be carried out, whether people liked it or not. Hong Kong is still not a democracy, yet the problem today is there are people who refuse to accept the reality that an undemocratic and communist China ultimately rules Hong Kong.
Communism might have died but communist China is alive and strong. Anyone with some degree of sanity can see that defiance against Beijing is leading Hong Kong nowhere. Beijing has started to realise there is this anti-China sentiment and is getting tough with it. Those who are against the Hong Kong government because of their subconscious refusal to accept China’s legitimate sovereignty over the city should seriously re-examine their position and their attitude. Failing this, they will surely wither with endless frustration over time.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party