Sorry, Eric X. Li, Democracy Is Not the Problem

Christian Caryl
Foreign Policy
October 15, 2014

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists aren’t radicals or revolutionaries. But that’s what Beijing wants you to believe.

The past year hasn’t been a happy one for democrats. Most of the Arab Spring uprisings, which inspired so much hope when they started three years ago, have given way to blood and tears. Burma’s efforts to shed 60 years of military dictatorship have been marred by vicious ethnic conflict. The government in Turkey has been putting the squeeze on the courts, the civil service, and the press; the military in Thailand staged a coup against the elected government there.

All this bad news has been music to the ears of the apologists of autocratic rule. Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of nationalist pride after annexing the Crimea and waging war against Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has been singing the praise of the “illiberal state,” citing Russia, China, and an increasingly authoritarian Turkey as examples to be emulated. Supporters of the Bangkok junta lecture their compatriots on the need to reject “western-style democracy.”

The arguments aren’t new. Democracies, we’re told, are inherently “unstable.” They can’t get things done. They don’t guarantee rapid economic growth. They embrace allegedly “decadent” values, like respect for gay rights. And they support liberal institutions that are an affront to local traditions of respect for authority or the needs of the group. The “western model,” we’re told, is “broken.”

Now Shanghai-based businessman Eric X. Li has offered his own contribution to the genre. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post he explains why he rejects the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong:

The prevailing media narrative about the Hong Kong protest — namely that the citizens are politically dissatisfied and are fighting for democracy against the tyranny of Beijing — is false. What’s actually happening is this: A fringe of radical (or sometimes, more charitably, merely naive) ideologues are recasting the real and legitimate economic grievances of people here as a fight about Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Li insists that the real problem in Hong Kong is not the lack of political participation but an uncertain economic future. Income inequality, he notes, is high and rising rapidly. Most Hong Kong citizens are worried about how to maintain their prosperity, he says; not about the fight for universal suffrage that motivates the demonstrators: “[W] hile the foot soldiers are largely well-intentioned people with genuine concerns for their own welfare and that of the Hong Kong society, they are led by activists with a strong ideological agenda,” writes Li.

“As a result, their aim becomes the overthrow of the government or sometimes the entire political system.”

Maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong demonstrators, but so far I haven’t heard a single member of the Umbrella Movement say that they aspire to the overthrow of the “entire political system” of Hong Kong, much less China.

They’re demonstrating for the right to elect a Hong Kong leader of their own choice.

It’s not at all clear why this should count as a “radical” or “ideological” demand. The activists are not demanding the prohibition of the Chinese Communist Party. They’re not asking for the People’s Liberation Army troops who are stationed in Hong Kong to be expelled.

They’re not denying Beijing’s sovereignty (which was, after all, supposed to encompass recognition of “two systems” in a single country).

What they’re asking for is the same right that most other people in the world today enjoy. In the course of this year vast populations in other Asian countries have voted for their own presidents and prime ministers — notably India (pop. 1.2 billion) and Indonesia (250 million). Why shouldn’t the citizens of Hong Kong (7.2 million) be able to do the same? What is about them that makes them inherently inferior in the eyes of Beijing?

Li’s answer, essentially, is that the protesters —

especially those misguided “foot soldiers,” as he condescendingly calls them — don’t know what’s good for them. His response to the inequality problem is to keep political power in the territory concentrated in the hands of an already tiny elite of privileged tycoons, almost all of whom actively oppose the protest movement.

Under the current system, Li notes soothingly, “[t]he chief executive, a native Hong Konger, is selected by a committee of 1,200 other Hong Kongers.”

I’m astonished that Li would expect the Umbrella Movement to find the highly selective nature of that pool of voters reassuring. Far from being the naïve simpletons of Li’s caricature, the students and young people who lead it face the brutal reality of finding a job in a place where they’re in increasingly short supply. They’re intimately familiar with the economic problems, and yet they demonstrate nonetheless — because, unlike Li, they regard the political and the economic as intimately linked. To date Hong Kong’s ruling class has failed to come up with remedies for the widening gap in incomes.

Given that context, the activists’ desire to gain a say over the choice of their top leader strikes me as eminently rational.

Yet the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, according to Li, just can’t help themselves. They’ve been seduced by the siren call of something he calls “maidanacracy,” after the central square in Kiev that served as the scene of the protests that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year:

These movements generally fail when they are put down violently, with tragic loss of life (think of Syria). In the rare cases in which they succeed, they lead to long periods of suffering and destruction (think of Ukraine, where more than a decade of continuous color revolutions have torn the country apart and now threaten the nation’s very survival). Some maidan movements seem to run on a perpetual cycle: get on the square to remove a government, only to return to the square to remove the next one (think of Egypt). In the meantime, paralysis, chaos and even violence reign.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the blithe equation of victim and oppressor implied by this comment. (So the Ukrainians who resisted Viktor Yanukovych are guilty for sowing chaos because he tried to stay in power by killing them? The Syrians who began with peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship are responsible for the barrel bombs he’s dropping on them now?) And let’s also ignore the idea that Syria’s civil war and, say, the successful democratic transition in Tunisia (where citizens also rebelled against a corrupt dictatorship) are all somehow part of the same “problem.”

What does Hong Kong really have to do with all this? The accusation that pro-democracy protestors bear the responsibility for inciting “instability” by resisting a corrupt or tyrannical status quo is not a new one. But it seems especially cynical in the case of Hong Kong’s current protests, where the demonstrators have gone to extraordinary and exemplary lengths to stick to the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience.

Maybe it’s true, as Li seems to imply, that the Umbrella Movement leaders are a bunch of crazy hotheads who are completely unaware of the nature of the system they’re opposing. Or maybe they actually are capable of negotiation and compromise.

If China’s leaders are really interested in stability, as they endlessly declaim, surely they’d be willing to exhaust every opportunity to talk.

The reality, of course, is that the People’s Republic of China, of which Hong Kong is a tiny but very influential part, is not stable at all — as Li well knows.

It is a country currently beset by a slowing economy, immense political uncertainty, endemic corruption, and simmering social discontent. And this, of course, is precisely why the leaders in Beijing fear these protests so much: they are intensely sensitive to possible contagion on the mainland. Simply suppressing these problems won’t make them go away. It is in the interest of everyone in the world, but first and foremost of the Chinese themselves, that the Chinese Communist Party should find peaceful and constructive ways to manage the tensions and conflicts that will inevitably result.

At some point, responding to popular demands for political participation will have to become part of the mix. Surely Hong Kong — with its wealth, its strong traditions of the role of law, and its high levels of education — would be the best place to start.

The Umbrella Movement activists have shown extraordinary courage to the world. Maybe it’s time for the apparatchiks in Beijing to swallow their own fear and try working out a deal. Resorting to force, as they’ve done so many times in the past, will merely demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of China’s model.