By Johan Galtung
Beijing should listen to its own excellent mantra: “One Country, Two Systems”. A part of that other system is democracy. England never practiced that during 150 years of conquest and colonialism – also fearing Hong Kong might vote themselves into independence from UK – but that low standard is no excuse.
And democracy today rides on an expanding agenda, much more than periodic fair and free multi-party national elections which China does not practice, for its own reasons.
China experiments with local democracy and Hong Kong is local. Democracy today moves in favor of direct election of the Chief Executive; in the Hong Kong case governor, in 2017. That means having a choice among candidates with different visions, not a governor appointed, be that by Beijing or by the governing council of Hong Kong.
Thus, Indonesia has been taken to task by its own people and by media (“Indonesia rolls back democratic progress”, INYT, 27/28-09-14) for eliminating direct elections of provincial and local leaders. Even if having the assembly at the same level elect, appoint or accept them, like in parliamentary democracy, is very frequent, the move seems to be toward elections. Like in presidential democracy.
How about the Communist Party of China favoring one who “loves Hong Kong and loves China”? The formula sounds good and tallies well with the reality in most countries. But the problem is who decides whether the candidate meets that or any other criterion, and the answer from the “Occupy Central with Peace and Love” movement, with sit-ins starting 28 September, is very clear: the people of Hong Kong.
People all over the world want to be ruled by their own kind, by one of their own, not even by somebody who might objectively be more competent and good for Hong Kong but is not one of theirs.
However, Beijing may share London’s fear: Could they vote themselves into independence, a city state like Singapore?
Probably not. In no way belittling their devotion to democracy, this is above all a student movement. Like the Tiananmen students in 1989 – who were not massacred but driven out, what happened to the workers is another story – they may have an additional agenda. Since the Deng Xiaopeng 1980 revolution, the power of intellectuals – the former ruling class – has decreased in favor of merchants, farmers and workers.
Capital, money ranks higher than knowledge. Talking with some student leaders from Tiananmen, their concerns seemed to be both democracy and their own power. Hong Kong students may also want both-and.
At this moment it is not clear how long the sit-ins will last, how internal strife is handled, what kind of dialogue there will be, how it will all end. To bloc key streets for common citizens with such concerns as getting to the place of work, shopping, ambulances and police for emergencies was not a good strategy of nonviolence.
Leaving that aside, imagine several candidates emerge, all professing love for Hong Kong, some with more, some with less love for China. Imagine students prefer “less”. But the Hong Kong Federation of students is only a small, active, vocal minority, even when counting high school students. The majority may prefer “more”, feeling that the Basic Law has worked and is working.
Imagine any other country having inside itself another “system”, even to the point of having its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar? Also well knowing that competing with Shanghai, Guangzhou, and at some distance Singapore, is not easy, that being a part of “One country” may be an asset? Hong Kong is after all an economic success story.
Should they vote themselves into independence, then what?
China may do like almost all other countries would do and say: NO. It is against our constitution, the country is one and indivisible. The line is drawn here, not at how candidates for Hong Kong Chief Executive are nominated; that would be part of the Hong Kong democracy “system”.
However, imagine that they badly want independence as city state?
Leaving aside that USA-UK would be jubilant and probably have a hand in the whole thing anyhow, so what? Hardly the end of the world for China. Taiwan is independent, and the relations are reasonable. Hong Kong, comma, China is de facto independent except for the governor issue, a flag, and a garrison.
A better policy would be to give in on the nomination, and invite Taiwan to become Taiwan comma China, even without flag and garrison.
Followed by Tibet comma China. Uighur comma China, Inner Mongolia comma China. With han China, six Chinas.
China has been through this before: the tributary system, from the Zhou (1050-250 BC) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. In a paper at the recent conference of the International Peace Research Association, Asena Demirer, professor at Yeditepe university of Istanbul, sees China’s tributary system as benevolent imperialism (another case being the Ottoman empire, but not the Western ones).
As late as 1908, shortly before the end of Qing, Nepal paid tribute to Beijing. Paying tribute in the sense of paying a visit, not as something paid but as sign of closeness and respect, recognizing Beijing as a center. To Demirer the Chinese empire was culturalist rather than structuralist; in fact what England is practicing now, riding on language and Shakespeare for the Commonwealth and beyond, and not unsuccessfully.
No small praise goes to Beijing for keeping its cool. There has been nothing like the US militarized police brutality against their Occupy; there have even been contacts with top Hong Kong politicians. China has not sunk to “How Israel silences dissent” (Mairav Zonszein, Israeli-US, INYT 27/28-09-2014): chanting Death to Arabs, Death to leftists, beating demonstrators with no police protection, threatening murder, defending status quo by all means , “creeping fascism”.
Maybe USA and Israel also have something to learn about democracy?
Originally published at Transcend Media Service here.