In Hong Kong, a global contest over models of governance

The leader of Hong Kong admits that allowing open choice for election candidates would give too much power to the city's large population of poor people. The protests are aimed at challenging such paternalistic governance, a model China promotes to the world.

AP Photo
Pro-democracy protesters cheer as they listen to a student leader after talks between Hong Kong government officials and students Oct. 2.

In an interview Monday, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, may have admitted the real reason China refuses to let the people of that semiautonomous city choose their candidates for a 2017 election: the poor might dominate the results.

“If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month,” Mr. Leung told Western journalists as he tried to end mass protests in the streets. About 1 in 5 people in Hong Kong lives in poverty. Yet its current politics – and ties with Beijing – are dominated by the city’s tycoons.

Under an edict from the Communist Party, candidates will be selected by a 1,200-member nominating committee and controlled by Beijing, with appointed representatives from various groups, such as professions and religions. The voting itself will be universal. But the vetting of candidates will, ultimately, rest with the party.

Democracy has many flaws, but denying the dignity of each citizen to run for office is not one of them. Such a fundamental right of equality not only helps keep a check on government, it also reflects the idea that rights are to be protected by government, not given or taken away by autocratic leaders. As Robert Kennedy once stated, “the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value, and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit.”

China has drawn a line on Hong Kong’s freedoms because its rulers want to promote an alternative type of governance to liberal democracy and the notion of its universality. That alternative is paternalistic government, one in which a self-appointed elite suppress freedom for the sake of economic development. The poor are seen as unready for self-government and in need of decades of guidance and growth.

“Of the non-democratic alternatives, China poses the most serious challenge to the idea that liberal democracy constitutes a universal evolutionary model,” writes American scholar Francis Fukuyama in a new book, “Political Order and Political Decay.” He states that the ultimate test for the universality of liberal democracy will be whether the emerging middle class in China demands it.

Tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong, a special territory of China, are already demanding it. Telling these activists that the poor among them are undeserving as democratic players will only expose the Chinese alternative for what it is: based on the notion that individual dignity is created and controlled by the state, rather than an inherent aspect of each individual.

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