Mandela's apartheid South Africa we are not

Next Magazine - - Second Opinion - By Stephen Brown Stephen Brown is an Honorary Fellow of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong-based think tank.

As the anguish over the prison terms passed on some of our youthful protesters ring out from the well-padded international liberal elite, you can’t help but feel that they would do rather better looking at themselves, and their own countries’ histories.

In particular, when it comes to democratic matters, Britain has little to teach the world if it recalls the bizarre treatment that it handed out to the suffragettes, who were merely seeking the vote for women, which involved locking 1,000 of them up in appalling prison conditions, for breaches such as not paying fines, a little over a hundred years ago.

Yes, times move on and values change, but the reality is that ours is essentially a conservative society and the very muted protests in support of the sentenced individuals reflect the fact that our people respect the rule of law, abhor public violence, and believe that those who resort to public violence should be punished firmly.

We are not pre-apartheid South Africa and for those who think that their opinions are so important that they have to express them to a global audience, they should read Mandela’s brilliant speech at the Rivonia Trial, where he lucidly explained the African National Congress decision to undertake a campaign of violence and to fully accept the consequences: “This then is what the ANC is fighting for. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience.”

In this remarkable speech, Mandela essentially asked the judge to sentence him to death, in accordance with the law. The life sentence that he eventually got was taken as a display of weakness on the part of the regime and marked the start of its downfall some three decades later, proving once more that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

A lesson that Mr Joshua Wong may wish to consider while he has time on his hands.

Anyway, we can be sure of one thing - these events will fade as the city gets on with its own business and as our strongly independent citizens continue their daily routines and make their own way in the world, paying little heed to much that is outside their own sphere of activities.

And this is of course one of our great strengths.

Our institutions are generally very weak, as we were never prepared properly for the withdrawal of the colonial government. The political system here actually dissipates rather than concentrates authority, while policy formation and implementation is, at best, poor. For most elected politicians, such weak controls over the levers of power would be seen as a disaster and something that needs correcting immediately.

But here, in Hong Kong, the political mess so often bemoaned actually ensures that people live in little fear of ad hoc government intervention in their lives as they continue to be proudly self-sufficient.

It may be sacrilege to say it, but the large vacuums within our economy and society that our ineffective system of administration and decision making has created over the decades is the key to the continued success of our city and the people that make it.

The independence and entrepreneurialism needed to survive and prosper in a society such as ours is certainly not to everyone’s liking, but for those who are attracted to Hong Kong - those who want to work hard to make their way without much of a safety net - the city surely ranks alongside New York and London as being the most dynamic on the planet.

Attitude is the word.

Hong Kong has attitude and for as long as it keeps its rough, tough edge it will prosper. Whether our electoral system is ideal or not, at least our society offers everybody, unlike Mandela’s apartheid South Africa, a fair crack of the whip and the chance to become whatever they want.

Which, in a way, is what democracy is really about in the first place.

“if needs be, ... I am prepared to die.”

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