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December 08, 2006

Hong Kong and Human Nature
Posted by Marc Grinberg

HONG KONG -- I've always assumed that political freedom is a fundamental human desire.  Men would sacrifice great treasure and, for some, life itself in pursuit of this liberty.  Recent events seemed to confirm this assumption - Iraqis risking death for the chance to vote, students in Iran facing violent reprisals and jail time for protesting the government, the Orange Revolution, etc.

However, after spending a week in Hong Kong, I'm no longer convinced that the fundamental-ness of this desire is universal.   While I still believe that political freedom is a universal desire, I'm not sure that it is universally fundamental - that is, that for all people it trumps all (or most) other desires.

I asked a Hong Konger (yes, that's the nationality of a person from Hong Kong) friend of mine to tell me about democracy in Hong Kong.  "It sucks," he replied. "Because it is not democracy at all."  In Hong Kong the chief executive is hand picked by China.  The legislature has 60-seats: 30 elected by direct election and 30 elected by functional constituencies, that is interest groups with close ties to Beijing.  Freedom House scores political freedom in Hong Kong a 5 out of 7, where 1 is completely free and 7 is Belarus.  Not what you expect from "Asia's World City."

"Why then does the status-quo persist?" I asked. "Why don't the people of Hong Kong push for greater democracy?"  Hong Kong, after all, is one of Asia's most Western cities - the people are certainly exposed to liberal ideas about democracy.  And opinion polls show large majorities of Hong Kongers do in fact want greater democracy.

"People in Hong Kong are practical," he responded.  By this, he meant that a push for greater political freedom would inevitably cause instability and, at least short term, interruptions in the economy.  Most Hong Kongers are first and foremost driven by money.  This may now be cliche, but from my observations it seems to be true (I have dozens of stories if you ask nicely).  If the fight for political freedom causes even short-term drops in wealth, then it is not a sacrifice most are willing to make.

So what does this tell us about democracy and human nature?  Is it possible that the desire for political freedom arises not from nature but from nurture?  That is, do we yearn for democracy because we have been taught (through culture and education, etc.) that it is a fundamental right and not because it is an intrinsic human instinct?  And if this is the case, does it change how those of us who support the promotion of democracy abroad go about doing it?


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Of course democracy isn't a fundamental desire. How could it be? Voting etc are fairly recent inventions.

Through most of prehistory, nomadic bands and villages have probably been usually managed by the village elders. The inuit are a fairly good example, fairly recently. A woman has a baby, the elders look at it and decide who the father is. If she's living with somebody else her parents raise it. Two men get in a dispute, one of them is a good hunter. The elders tell the other one he can compete at sled racing but not at trapping -- that is, they need the good hunter so he mustn't be killed, go away if you won't live with him. A rather egalitarian society, hunters got respect because they warded off starvation, anybody could vote with their feet if they thought they could feed themselves elsewhere.

The spread of standing armies and kings wasn't all that long ago.

The fundamental human desires are

1. A sense of identity. (You have working for democracy as part of your identity so it's vitally important to you. Some don't.)

2. Excitement.

3, Security.

And everything else ranks farther down.

I suspect that your HK friends don't have their identities tied around democracy and they don't find the fight for it exciting. So they look at the eventual security they get if they can get democracy versus the immediate insecurity they get from opposing the government, and it doesn't look like a good investment.

When china does things to directly oppress HK, particularly things that threaten to make everybody poor, then it will be an identity issue. And given a lot of insecurity from the status quo, the excitement of opposition will look more attractive.

All it took was a week in Hong Kong to raise doubts that "freedom is a fundamental human desire"? Now you tell us.

A lot of trouble might have been avoided if six years ago the then-incoming administration had taken a pre-inauguration retreat in Hong Kong. DA contributors might want to think about doing the same kind of thing now.

The desire for economic freedom is so much greater than political freedom that I can't believe this is even up for debate.


After a night to think about the comments, which can be easily summed up as, "Yeah, isn't that obvious?" I've come to realize that maybe it is something I've always known but never wanted to believe. If democracy is not a fundamental human desire, then it makes the case for promoting it slightly more difficult. You have to appeal to a non-instrumental argument for democracy as opposed to the instrumental one - that it is what the people want.

However, when I consider the strategies for promoting democracy that bloggers on DA and liberal internationalists in general are advocating, it seems to me that the nurture idea of political freedom is something we have always known. For liberal internationalists democracy building is a process. We fundamentally disagree with the simple neoconservative notion that if you only remove the dictator (the impediment to political freedom), then democracy will naturally spring up in its place.

So maybe my "revelation" is not one of learning, but of reconciling what I wanted to believe about the human desire for political freedom with what I actually knew was true.

It's worth pointing out - from my vantage point in Hong Kong - that while Hong Kongers do not enjoy democracy, that does not mean they are in an oppressive or dictatorial system. The government here rules by consent, if not by explicit popular mandate, and on a number of major policy questions, the government has been defeated by massive popular opposition.

The latest form of this has been regarding changing the Hong Kong tax system - at the moment, there is no sales tax (VAT, GST, etc.) in Hong Kong and a very large proportion of government revenue comes from the sale of long commercial leaseholds on plots of land for development. Earlier this year, the government proposed bringing in a sales tax, to broaden the tax base, and particularly to cushion against possible future property market slumps. The opposition was massive, and almost no significant group in Hong Kong was willing to support the government - they lost at least one vote in the parliament on the subject, and last week the Financial Secretary announced that they were shelving the plans.

It should also be noted that the current Financial Secretary took his position after his predecessor resigned in the aftermath of, again, massive public opposition to a proposed anti-subversion bill which was seen as being too strong and heavy-handed, and which was withdrawn in the face of the opposition.

Democracy is good. One good thing about it is that it provides a defined, nonviolent method to get a change in administration. So the USA has gone more than 200 years with only one civil war. That's got to have a lot to do with our wealth -- internal wars tear things up. Compare that with ancient israel. Saul was the first king, he got taken out by a foreign army who installed an israelite mercenary. David had lots of sons, and every time he did something that looked like he favored one of them, it was like painting a bullseye on the kid's back. Something always happened and the kid died. Then when David died the various sons called up their loyal followers to fight for them, and the one who inherited the palace guard won and had most of the others killed. The generation after that the kingdom split in two.

But that's a long-range advantage.

Democracy provides a way for competing fanatics to learn to cooperate. Rather than shoot each other, they try to persuade voters. Their relative votes give some indication how well they'd do in a real fight, and as long as they're willing to keep it to the political arena the country avoids that kind of violence too. Democracies often have continuing problems from minorities who got special privilegs at the beginning because they didn't trust the majority to treat them fairly. In the USA small states were concerned they'd be outvoted, so we got the Senate and rhode island's two senators. Not so terrible. Slave states were concerned they'd be outvoted and we got the 3/5ths rule and many compromises, until the system of increasing privileges to protect slave states finally failed to protect them enough and they revolted. In lebanon christians got advantages, until the high muslim birthrate left christians unwilling to allow a new census. Things went downhill from there. The question how to protect minorities from majorities in democracies has never had a good answer yet, when the minorities actually need protection.

Democracy means you get some say in the laws that get imposed on you. And on the taxes. That's no help if you're part of a despised minority, but it helps a lot of people. But the abstract right isn't enough. Get a bunch of crooks in government who steal your money, and you can work to vote them out. And then you can work to get the new legislature to change the laws. Can you get your money back? Unlikely. What if the new guys are crooks too? Consider the cost of running for office, and the chance of losing. Would you expect legislators to do their jobs and lose money at it?

The advantage of democracy over a reasonable kleptocracy is that you have a defined nonviolent way to throw the bums out. The big disadvantage is that reasonable kleptocrats have a clear sense how much they can get away with shearing the public in the long run, while short-run legislators are more likely to take what they can get now. We might do better choosing legislators for short terms with a lottery. Anybody can win a lottery so it's fairer that way, and with a high turnover it's harder for them to get organised.

Democracy has some good points, but not things that many people would be willing to die for. People are a lot hotter to fight tyranny. Get an unpopular leader who doesn't accept feedback from the people, and after they get rid of him maybe they try to put some checks on the next leader. Fervor for democracy is a response to bad autocratic government, it isn't a primary thing.

Myself, I want democracy. It's an identity thing with me, I'd fight for democracy even if it went against my own personal welfare, provided it didn't hurt me too bad. That's why I want the GOP to be destroyed. Their concept of democracy is too undemocratic to suit me. But the fact that the GOP does still exist is proof that a whole lot of americans don't care about democracy at all.

Democratic elections are among the most powerful tools for a government seeking to assure its legitimacy. In countries facing crises of legitimacy, democratic elections are very appealing as a way of cementing a new government. Thus countries generally make the transition to a democratic system at moments when governmental legitimacy is challenged. This occurred in South Korea because of the violent split between the ruling military government and students and labor unions, in Taiwan because of the ethnic divide which had excluded the indigenous population, in Indonesia because the collapse of the economy pulled the rug out from under the (narrow) governing clique, and so forth. When such crises arise, the simple ethical appeal of "one man, one vote" is hard to escape.

When governments enjoy legitimacy and provide economic progress, people have better things to do with their time than campaign for democracy. People in Vietnam and China are not particularly interested in democracy. Should a crisis challenge the government's legitimacy, that could change. Also, the dynamics of development demand that governments grant input on major decisions to other powerful social actors, like businesspeople and technical experts in various fields. But the Chinese and Vietnamese governments have so far been successful in integrating such groups into the decisionmaking process, as has Hong Kong.

There are two possibilities for the future in East Asia. On the one hand, it may prove impossible for Communist governments to sustain their legitimacy in the face of major difficulties, since neither their citizens nor even their own members actually believe in their ideology any more. This might lead to the development of different parties with the Parties, and eventually to open popularity contests and some version of real democracy.

On the other hand, the Chinese model may thrive and prevail. This entails the constant widening of decisionmaking input to new groups of interest and expertise, but without incorporating free universal elections. I have never seen a convincing demonstration that this kind of technocratic corporatist state is not viable; it seems to possess some advantages over democratic systems, as well as disadvantages. If this is so, then the 21st century, once seen as a "post-historical" moment, may instead witness a real contest between differing visions of government, after all.

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