Shakespeare is not the only wordsmith to “shuffle off this mortal coil” 400 years ago. The Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra hasn’t had as much fanfare as the 400th anniversary of the bard’s passing in 2016.  The main character of Don Quixote in Cervantes’s classic The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, has given to rise to the useful word “quixotic” for someone who is extremely idealistic, unrealistic, and impractical.

Hong Kong pan-democrats in Hong Kong have long been told that they are “too idealistic”, “totally unrealistic” and “quite impractical” to expect Hong Kong to achieve “real” democracy under the sovereignty of a country that has never known democracy, and which sees “full democracy” as equal to “extreme democracy” as equivalent to “mob rule”.  Perhaps Hong Kong’s democratic camp seem rather quixotic, ignoring calls to be “pragmatic” and accept the status quo while a universal suffrage endpoint seems ever more unlikely.

Pro-democracy ‘Gau Wu’ protest in Mong Kok; banner says “I want genuine universal suffrage”. Photo: Resistance Live.

Still, sometimes “tilting at democratic fantasy windmills” is worthwhile in the hope they, by incremental action, will turn into actual people-driven structures that turn in a properly democratic direction.

Perhaps our take on Cervantes story could go something like this:

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In a nearby Asian land there are some people loosely grouped under the term “romantic idealists”. These people often work in elite professions (often as lawyers, teachers, religious followers, and others of that ilk), so they have enough money not to worry where their instant noodles and rent money are coming from. So they spend most of their free time reading books about history, human rights, and justice, and there are no books that interest them more than books about noble struggles against the odds like Mahatma Gandhi and his Indian independence movement, Martin Luther King and his “dream” of civil rights, and Nelson Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela. Photo: via Flickr.

This group also has a penchant for Western literature and mythology, and is particularly partial to fairy stories of medieval knights riding around on horses, slaying dragons, and kissing the hands of fair maidens. The “slaying dragons” issue raises the scorn of a big country to the north which likes to think of itself as a cultural powerhouse containing all-powerful dragons. In the northern culture, dragons are esteemed animals and not to be belittled. The northerners and the elite of the Asian land accuse this group of being corrupted by Evil Foreign Elements residing in the land, or when they were getting their education abroad.

This Asian land has a constitution and there are laws in it that basically say that its people could “ultimately” achieve something called “democracy”, which was taken by many to mean that the “people of the land” would actually “rule the land” with a “high degree of autonomy” after shaking of a previous colonial yoke. This promise had some caveats though: this could only be achieved “according to the actual situation” and “with gradual and orderly progress”. The trouble is no one was sure what these phrases really meant.

It turns out that after reading their beloved Western books, they got rather excited about this thing called “democracy” and thought it was something that they would like to have – as soon as possible. However, the northerners seem to put all kinds of obstacles in the way and “added ingredients” to the Asian land’s constitution so that another hurdle had to be achieved before democracy could see the light of day. Remembering their heroes Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela, this rag-tag group decided that they wanted to take up the fight for democracy.

One day, after a number of incidents, the rag-tag group decides to start a political party and become activists themselves. They take the name of “pan-democrats” and start travelling up and down the Asian land looking for adventures where they can further the cause. But the northern dragon seems to be able to stymie them at every turn, using cryptic language sayings “melons pulled off the vine are not sweet”, and “more haste, less speed” (translation: you’ll get it when we say you will get it). Particularly galling was being called “too immature” or being accused of having heads “too far into the clouds”.

Members of the Democratic Party.

Despite the name-calling, the rag-tag group has such an active imagination that they really believe that they can gradually render the northern dragon impotent and eventually be able to help see in actual democracy.

Early in the rag-tag group’s journey, certain individuals attach themselves to the group as they know some of this group has a good bit of wealth and hope to make some money by hanging out with them. As the story continues, though, these individuals actually find themselves starting to believe the rag-tag group’s democratic craziness, and they even hope that one day the rag-tag group’s leaders will give them important party positions.

There are also some Important Government Officials who want to cure this group’s madness, and they devise all sorts of schemes to get them to achieve “consensus” by being “moderate” as that is the Asian Way. But these self-termed “rationalists” often underestimated the power of these people’s democratic imagination. The group is accused of jeopardizing the Asian land’s stability and prosperity.

There are more adventures, too numerous to elaborate here. Briefly, there are internal struggles in the rag-tag group about courses of action and splits occur: moderate factions turn into radical factions, radical factions turn into moderate factions and some become traitors to the cause by going to the dark, dragon-hued side. Despite the casualties and the fact that little headway towards democracy seems to be made, the rag-tag group still sees cause for optimism. A “colour movement” that boldly uses the imperial yellow briefly flowers and dies but leaves a legacy of a new group: “The Sons and Daughters of the Soil”. More and more people have a stake in the democratic dream being realized.

Don Quixote’s first edition & illustrations. Photo: Wikicommons.

At the end of Cervantes’s novel, Don Quixote realizes that he’s out of his mind. But by that point, it’s too late to do anything. He gets a high fever and dies in his bed. His dying wish is for everyone to know how stupid all those books on chivalry actually are. That may be the reason why Cervantes wrote this book.

Personally, I can’t see the problem in chasing the imagination and I don’t see the Hong Kong pan-democrats’ struggle as wasted effort. Eventually they may get there. Patience is needed. That is why I’m not ending my adaptation of Cervantes’ story of his “ingenious gentlemen” like he did. I want to conclude on a more idealistic note.

Jennifer Eagleton

Jennifer Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since 1997, is a policy committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project. Her PhD analyzed how Hong Kong talks about democracy through metaphor. She is a teacher of English and linguistics as well as researcher and editor.