Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
As the leaders of the umbrella movement sit down to negotiate with Hong Kong authorities after weeks of street protests, the big question is whether the two sides can find a compromise that meets both Beijing’s concerns about stable and efficient governance on the one hand, and citizens’ concerns about genuine, instead of sham, democracy on the other.
Under the current plan authored in Beijing, which has led to the protests, Hong Kong citizens can vote for a chief executive in 2017 through universal suffrage — one person, one vote. But they are only allowed to vote for nominees from a 1,200 member Nominating Committee that, in its composition, favors Beijing-blessed candidates and the powerful local business establishment. The protesting students want a greater say in who is nominated.
Because of its unusual status as a territory under a “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong is uniquely positioned to fashion a new model of governance that is a middle way between West and East. What might that look like?
CHINA’S “INSTITUTIONAL CIVILIZATION” VS. WESTERN DEMOCRACY
A middle way would seek to combine the strengths of China’s system and Western democracy while minimizing their weaknesses.
The strength of China’s political system is its ability to forge consensus and unity of purpose within one party through wide consultation and debate instead of dividing the body politic through competitive multi-party elections. When cronyism is under control, leaders are promoted based on experience and capability. That in turn allows the development of policies with the long-term and common good in mind and enables sustained implementation of those policies over the long haul.
In this way, China’s government has been able to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty in only three decades, build 8,000 miles of high-speed rail that will ultimately link to 80 percent of its cities and rise to the top ranks of the global economy. After more than half a century of democracy, India, by contrast, still can’t provide toilets for half of its population.
Though nominally Communist, the present system in China is heir — in its ideal form — to China’s 2,000 year-old “institutional civilization,” where selection of leaders based on meritocratic competition has played the same central role historically as competitive elections in the West.
The downside of such a system, of course, it that it can too easily become hidebound and corrupt, turning the meritocratic ideal into rule by a self-interested, insular and self-perpetuating autocracy.
For it to work properly, there must be robust feedback loops — relatively free expression — and judicial independence. (Hong Kong at present has these attributes. And, in this context, the crackdown in mainland China on the internet is misconceived and counterproductive).
The strength of a democracy like the U.S. is that everyone has a voice and can contend for power. But lacking the capacity to forge consensus out of the cacophony of voices and multitude of interests, it has become paralyzed with gridlock. Its adversarial democracy has decayed into partisan rancor and divided the public against itself. In short, there are more checks than balances as the deliberative functions of governance have withered.
The formal mechanism of consent and accountability — one person, one vote elections — has become beholden to both the short-term mentality of voters and what Frank Fukuyama calls the “vetocracy” of special interests from the financial industry to teacher’s unions that seek to preserve their spoils by protecting the status quo.
It is little wonder that the present dysfunction of Western democracy gives pause to those who want an effective form of governance for their societies.
To restore its capacity for self-correction, Western democracy needs more consensus-building practices and institutions to balance the short-term horizons of voters and interest group politics that dominate the electoral process.
HONG KONG’S NOMINATING COMMITTEE IS LIKE THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE OF EARLY U.S. DEMOCRACY
In its structure of combining selection and election, the emergent Hong Kong system is a kind of middle way. In fact, the Nominating Committee mechanism proposed to choose a chief executive is not so different from the Electoral College designed by American democracy’s Founding Fathers.
The idea of an Electoral College spelled out in Federalist Paper #68 was to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.”
The members of the College were chosen by state legislatures.
John Hamilton, James Madison and the others wanted to filter the choices of average voters through “enlightened government” by those they believed had a greater stake and broader perspective in governance — in those days, primarily landowners. Madison, in particular, always argued that constitutional democracy in the American republic should not mean direct rule by the electorate as it had, for example, in ancient Greece.
GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT
Good governance in Hong Kong, or elsewhere, requires getting the balance right between selection and election. The current plan for Hong Kong errs on the side of selection.
This can be remedied in several ways during the second round of consultations that are slated to take place in the wake of the meetings between protestors and authorities in Hong Kong.
Here are three alternative proposals that would preserve the consensus-forming attribute of the ideal of meritocratic selection with the consent-granting attribute of elections.
- The current Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) has 70 members, half of whom are directly elected by the general public in geographic districts and the other half by small groups representing functional constituencies in business and the professions.
Unlike the process of choosing the chief executive, the LegCo election arrangements are totally within the authority of Hong Kongers to determine and need not be approved by Beijing.
The LegCo is scheduled to revamp its system of representation by 2016 to prepare for full universal suffrage by 2020. The current debate is over how the functional seats should themselves by chosen by more democratic means so that they don’t carry more weight than the general electorate, or even if they should ultimately be eliminated altogether and replaced by all geographic districts where representatives are directly elected.
Either way, the LegCo could become a truly representative body of Hong Kong citizens.
If the revamped LegCo was guaranteed one nominee for chief executive along with the others proposed by the Nominating Committee, then the election for chief executive would be truly competitive.
- The 1200 member Nominating Committee that is slated to select the chief executive candidates in 2017 is divided into three functional sectors and a “fourth sector” comprised of LegCo, the district councils, representatives to the National People’s Congress and other bodies representing the general electorate.
If, as has been proposed by some moderate reform groups such as Hong Kong 2020, the corporate voting in the functional sectors is replaced by individual voting and the fourth sector could be expanded by 500 seats, the general electorate would have a more proportional say in the final nominations for chief executive.
- A further alternative might be a so-called “negative election” — giving Hong Kong voters the right to a “recall” or “a no confidence referendum” that can remove a chief executive if a majority of voters are dissatisfied with his or her performance.
No doubt there are other possible arrangements that would also create a better balance between selection and election in Hong Kong’s system.
In the end, the controversy in Hong Kong should not be cast as yet another round of the emotional and ideological battle between the “pro-democracy” West and “anti-democracy” Beijing, but as an opportunity to create something new in governance — a middle way between West and East.
Both China and democracies everywhere would stand to learn important lessons from Hong Kong’s experience about how to perfect a more intelligent form of governance for the 21st century.