Democracy has not always been trendy. But it developed into a fashionable story of success, a real marketing winner, to the point that even totalitarian political systems – like China’s – portray themselves loudly as democratic.

Photo: mameshiba1985, via Flickr.

Terrified by the ideas of genuine democracy, liberty and political autonomy, as despotic regimes typically are, the China Liaison Office’s recent statement that it is authorised to handle Hong Kong affairs may be the ultimate drop before the last drop. It is a deceitful and foolish violation of the Basic Law.

Certain concepts, such as justice, moral goodness or even art, are evaluative to their core, triggering fundamental disagreements about their essential meaning. But this is not the case for democracy.

There may be much to disagree over about democracy as a social ideal, but the view that there is a fundamental disagreement about its core meaning muddies the debate and serves the purposes of totalitarian rhetoric, allowing tyrannies to call themselves democratic.

Democracy contrasts precisely with dictatorship and self-appointed rulers, rejecting the autocratic principle that personalised political power can be held irrevocably.

The Great Hall. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

It is a method of collective decision-making based on people’s (contingent) consent involving fair elections, competitive and cooperative political processes, civic activism, free speech and accountability. It comes in different forms and gradations but must include universality, political equality, and meaningful participation in shaping the community’s rules and decisions.

Lacking in Macau and Hong Kong, democracy has been questioned even to the point of ‘democrat’ acquiring a pejorative tone. So it may be worth enquiring, yet again, whether it is valuable and where its value lies. Several reasons have been historically presented in the affirmative.

First, it presses rulers to take into consideration the rights, interests, and opinions of most people in society. If you are elected by the many, you tend to care for the many. Immigrants, for instance, are subject to generalised mistreatment precisely because they are the few, and lack rights of democratic participation.

Second, bringing a lot of people into the political process ensures that decision-makers are better informed about the interests of citizens and better equipped to advance those interests.

Goddess of democracy at the 2018 Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil in Victoria Park, Hong Kong. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Third, involvement in democratic processes tends to enhance the autonomy of the participants themselves. Also, distributing political power equally is the best recipe to mitigate rulers’ abuse of power.

These are instrumental values, which evaluate democracy in terms of its results. With all its serious shortcomings, democracy has brought about better societies: providing social and economic progress, liberty, equality, plurality, and the rule of law.

Democracy, it has been added, is also intrinsically valuable: independently of its consequences and, to a degree, even when it errs.

It is intrinsically valuable, first, because it is grounded in personal autonomy. A person is autonomous when she is, to a significant extent, the author of her own life. It expresses the vision of control of one’s destiny by exercising meaningful individual choices throughout life.

One needs (i) liberty and (ii) a variety of relevant options available to lead an autonomous life. No one doubts that adults have the right to self-government, to be the masters of their own lives. That we – not others – should choose our partners, jobs, sports, diet, books, movies, and friends.

Photo: Lady Liberty/LIHKG.

Democracy extends the idea that each person ought to be the ruler of her own life to the sphere of collective decision making. Each person’s life is profoundly affected by the community’s legal, social, and cultural environment, which impacts on the options and opportunities available to make our choices and exercise our liberties.

Since individuals have a right to self-government, they should take part in the designing of the environment that will pervasively affect their choices, life, and destiny.  

The merits of not being coerced to do – or not do – something reside, not only in being independent of others, but also in having the ability to do something else. If there were nothing else of relevance to do, freedom (to do nothing) would not change our life significantly.

We need opportunities to take advantage of freedom. Democratic participation makes it partly possible to be an author of the legal and social environment – providing for those options and opportunities that contribute to moulding our lives. This, therefore, leads to an autonomous life.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Additionally, or in the alternative, democracy is intrinsically valuable for treating people as equals. Democratic decision-making gives each an equal say in cases of disagreement and in compromising on matters of common interest.

People deprived of this right are treated as inferiors, not as equals. A non-democratic system treats its citizens as objects rather than subjects: why should others decide for us, not with us, on matters of our mutual interest?

Treating us as inferiors morally translates into treating us as inferiors practically. A Chief Executive appointed by authoritarian Beijing, and not by her fellow citizens, will seek to please Beijing, not the citizens.

Whatever the law may say, and the rhetoric promote, officials know they are ultimately accountable to Beijing, not to the people. How can they genuinely represent a community that did not – and would not – choose them? Why would the Chief Executive further the interests of the population against the interests of the dictator who appointed her?

Democratic regimes with neo-liberal ideologies have failed in the fight against entrenched economic and social inequalities. But democracy is still the best method to secure the interest of the underprivileged: only those who have a say can aspire to have their interests addressed.

Ultimately, dictatorships’ sole motivation to care for its people is political survival. Authoritarian systems are self-serving, serving the powerful. They are not rooted in civic principles such as autonomy and moral equality and have no genuine primary motivation to care for citizens as equals and holders of rights.

Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Non-democratic regimes are maintained by force – not by argument, reason, or consent. Yet, force is arbitrary: one does not win a debate by engaging in a fistfight. A government maintained by the sheer force of its army, police, and non-independent courts cannot be legitimately justified.

The idea of humans having a meaningful say in their own lives, individually and collectively, is not culturally specific and should not be discarded as ‘westernisation’. How can some humans treating others authoritatively as inferiors, paternalistically deciding on their lives and abusing their rights, liberties and integrity be a respectable culture-specific attribute?

Look at South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Mongolia, Asian cultures in their own right, content with significantly having an equal say in their country’s life.

Residents celebrate after pro-China politician Junius Ho lost his seat at the 2019 District Council election. Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Recently in Hong Kong, the majority cast their vote for democracy – why should they not be listened to? What is it in the culture of one of the most civic and financially sophisticated societies in the world that disavows democracy? What is it Hongkongers lack that others don’t?

Democracy is valuable, both instrumentally and intrinsically. People aspire to liberty, autonomy, and moral equality. Defending democracy in any corner of the world is vital. Beginning with Hong Kong and Macau.

We don’t want to be bought, lectured and repressed by governments appointed by and accountable to others. We want to be served by governments – elected by us, accountable to us, representing us.  Arguing actively in favour of democracy is the practical and morally right thing to do. Anything else fails to consider our moral standing as free and equal people.

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Jorge Menezes

Previously an academic, Jorge Menezes is a Macau-based practising lawyer. He has written and commented to the media on the erosion of rights and liberties in Macau, and was named by two media outlets one of the 20 Most Influential Personalities in Macau SAR's history for being "a kind of spokesman for pro-democratic ideas in Macau."