It is axiomatic that election winners do not rush to change the election system. Losers are quite another matter, losers who have lost really badly are even more desperate for change.

That is why it is advisable to ignore all the nonsense being aired in justification of scrapping the District Council election system.

district council queues
People queuing to vote in Hong Kong’s District Council election on November 24, 2019. Photo: USP reader.

The changes are a direct result of the massive rebuff to pro-government forces in the 2019 District Council election. The results were a particularly painful blow for former chief executive Carrie Lam’s administration because officials and members of the parties supporting them had repeatedly assured their masters in Beijing that once voters were given a chance they would definitely reject the people they described as “rioters” and “anti-China elements.”

Yet voters, in unprecedented numbers, clearly expressed quite another view. Pro-democracy candidates swept the board.

The immediate result was a reshuffling and demotion of Beijing officials responsible for Hong Kong. Lam’s chances of being allowed to run for a second term of office were also effectively scuppered.

But the fear lingered that even with a new set of faces in control it would still be very difficult to get the recalcitrant people of Hong Kong to vote for Beijing-approved candidates. The obvious solution was to change the election system to such an extent that defeat would be impossible.

2021 Legislative Council election polling station
A polling station for the Legislative Council election held on December 19, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

First up was the introduction of a system to ensure that only Beijing-approved candidates would be allowed to contest seats for the legislature. After this was introduced, voters boycotted the polls in droves.

When the time came for District Council elections, even more drastic measures were called for. Pending approval, the once fully elected bodies will be largely filled by appointees, plus a lingering sliver of elected officials, all hand picked before being allowed to run for office.

The reasons for these changes were then submerged under a barrage of excuses that centred around a number of claims, primarily that it would bring an end to chaos and ensure stability.

Then the old canard, deployed by all authoritarian regimes, was dragged up with the assertion that the new system would be more efficient and ensure that things would get done without obstruction.

It was, in effect, a cut price version of the myth put about by apologists for Italian fascism who infamously claimed that although Benito Mussolini might have been no friend of democracy, at least he managed to get Italy’s trains to run on time. History has now supplied a definitive record to dispute this myth.

count district council election box november 11 (16)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

However, the idea persists that progress can only made if bothersome politicians are not allowed to tamper with the smooth running of affairs.

Yet, it can hardly be a coincidence that countries with the highest standards of living and most consistent growth rates over long periods of time are nations run by democratic governments.

Hong Kong, is a stellar exception because it has never been governed democratically yet it enjoyed a long period of liberty and had been timidly moving along the path to representative government.

In this process the former colony experienced its most impressive era of economic growth and development of infrastructure. Indeed it can be argued that Hong Kong’s singular ability to punch above its weight was underpinned by the degree of liberty it enjoyed.

As Hong Kong economic growth shrivels and its once impressive standing in the world shrinks, even faster the apologists for the new order make increasingly outlandish claims to explain what is happening.

Central Business Cityview
File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

My favourite claim, made endearing by its sheer confusion, is the accusation that the colonial administration never allowed democracy to flourish, so why should it be allowed now?

The clear implication here is that the flourishing of democracy is a good thing and was suppressed by the dreaded Brits. If not, why mention it in the first place?

Also not mentioned is that the very people who have become born again patriots are the very same members of the Hong Kong establishment who did most to obstruct democratic development stretching back to the period following the end of the Japanese occupation during World War II.

They consistently claimed that there was little demand for representative government and were it to be permitted it would create chaos.

As someone who is now living in a less than perfect democracy, I could offer many examples of the pitfalls of representative government and be quite free to air these criticisms in public without fear of incarceration.

So, yes, democracy is hardly a panacea nor is it perfect but it is, as Winston Churchill famously said: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship