Party politics not true democracy
Last week the HKSAR Government issued its consultation document on political reform. This is a time for all of us to seriously think about, and to learn about democracy. In an earlier article, “The Spirit and Substance of Democracy”, published in this column, I argued that democracy must attend to and serve the best interests of people. A government, no matter how it is formed, that is not responsive to citizens’ needs and fails to offer its citizens the things they need most cannot be democratic.
Thus, even though India is said to be the world’s biggest democracy and that its governments have been chosen through elections based on competition among political parties, it is actually not very democratic. Corruption is pervasive and worse than China, according to Transparency International. Public hygiene is poor. Illiteracy is common. Personal safety for people and especially girls and women is subject to serious threats. Life expectancy at birth in India is 65.8 years in 2012; but in China it was 73.7. The average years of schooling in India in 2010 was 4.4; while it was 7.5 in China. On many counts, which are significantly valued by the two countries’ citizens, China has done much better than India. I, therefore, conclude China is more democratic than India.
Yet, to many, China’s rule is authoritarian rather than democratic. Such an impression is given because China does not follow “party rotation”. The preamble of the Chinese Constitution maintains that “the system of the multi-party cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China will exist and develop
ocracy must attend to and serve the best interests of people. A government, no matter how it is formed, that is not responsive to citizens’ needs and fails to offer its citizens the things they need most cannot be democratic.”
for a long time to come.”
Why is maintaining the leadership of the CPC for a long time authoritarian? The CPC does not belong to anyone in particular. It is only a “public instrument” whose primary function is to serve as a core group to govern China. Several commentators have argued that China’s government is one of “meritocracy”. Writing on Nov 9, 2012 in the New York Times, Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University said that while in the Western media the contrast between China and the US was depicted as one between an opaque Communist state and a transparent populous democracy, behind “this superficial contrast is a competition between two political models, one based more on meritocratic leadership and the other on popular elections. And the Chinese model may win.”
Many people argue that the present rule in Hong Kong, under which the Chief Executive (CE) must not have a political background, is at the heart of the difficulty to govern in Hong Kong. They believe that if the CE had the official backing of a political party and if there is a “ruling party”, the CE will enjoy greater support. But this logic is actually undemocratic.
I call this undemocratic because it is suggesting that LegCo members’ position on a policy is not based on an objective assessment of how well that policy serves the public interest. This is putting citizens’ interests below party or political interests. But why should these deviate from the public interest?
Asked about whether “Loving the country and loving Hong Kong” was required of the CE candidate, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said this was understood. Pressed to clarify what was meant by loving the country, Lam said loving the country did not imply loving the CPC. I take issue with this. If the CPC is a “public instrument” for all Chinese nationals, and it is doing well and is doing the right things for the country, then what is wrong with loving it? Loving the Party must not be construed as being uncritical and subservient to officials, and following blindly the dictates of whoever who heads the Party. Loving the Party must include protecting the Party from power abuses by individuals who usurp official powers for their personal ends. It is common sense that Party members are not all saints. It is also common sense that the institutions governing the Party’s operations will need to keep improving.
When President Xi Jinping put an end to sumptuous official banquets and officials giving expensive gifts, he was responding to the public’s demand for cleaner government. His efforts at judicial reforms are also a response to people’s demands for greater judicial independence. He may not be elected by universal suffrage, but if he was appointed through a mechanism which has credibility in terms of selecting good leaders, he has as much legitimacy as any popularly elected leader.