When I come to write my best-selling self-improvement classic How to Shoe-Shine Hong Kong Tycoons and Get Them to Do Your Bidding, there will be a chapter on bad-mouthing democracy. Few things are more endearing to the average aging, crotchety, cartel-running Overseas Chinese mogul than an apparently reasonable and sensible argument that accountable and representative government by and for the people is a Bad Thing For Everyone.
The notion neatly justifies the one-party state and denigrates evil Western ideas, so it is of course what the leaders of the Motherland want and expect to hear. Hong Kong tycoons will know the importance of this, having read my previous work How to Shoe-Shine Communist Dictators and Dissuade Their Kids from Shaking Down Your Mainland Investments. On top of that, it is naturally what members of the Big Lychee’s business ‘elite’ themselves instinctively feel, sitting atop an economic structure of monopolies and collusion that has more than a few characteristics in common with feudalism. Or at least they want to feel it. It is hard for someone exposed to international business not to have a few nagging doubts. Why does everyone in the Third World want to live in the USA? Why do democracies have humanity’s highest living standards? Why do they never wage war on one another? Dispel those doubts, and you will spread a little comfort and joy in the more conservative and clannish boardrooms of Central.
This is especially the case if you are Western-educated, as you have acquired the critical-thinking skills and nonetheless rejected the pluralistic politics; that almost makes you living proof. And it is even better if you are an actual card-carrying ethnic Caucasian citizen: someone who has grown up with the freedom, stability and prosperity for which his forebears struggled, only to spit in its face – proof absolute, surely. The righteous gwailo!
No-one would claim that democracy produces perfect results; it’s just that – as the near-cliche tells us – no-one has come up with anything better. Forget, Stalin, Hitler or Mao, or the obvious kleptocrats. Visionaries from Plato to Lee Kuan-yew have insisted that the masses are too disorderly or ignorant to know what is truly in their interests. But the best alternative they can come up with is self-selecting oligarchy which, in order to fulfill its benign mission, has no alternative but to dispense with disruptive separation of powers and inefficient checks and balances, and to censor and persecute independent thought. The optimum outcome would seem to be a Confucian realm of obedient citizen-children, where harmony is achieved through a lack of reasoning or questioning, at the price of material or any progress.
Which is why people who bad-mouth democracy never propose an alternative, but just recite old and not unreasonable complaints about crime, decadence and unaffordable welfare, which are hardly unique to societies with elected governments (and indeed prop up most unelected ones).
When I first read the down-with-democracy letter in today’s South China Morning Post, I suspected it was one of those missives occasionally (almost certainly) produced by the Chinese government’s local liaison office. But that doesn’t make sense. The writer with the so-bland-it’s-made-up name of Alan Johnson calls the virulently anticommunist Heritage Foundation ‘prestigious’; he states that US debt is ‘due to China’ – a charge Beijing rejects with extreme overdone bitterness; and he mentions Venezuela as an economic disaster when sub-Castro lunatic Hugo Chavez and Hu Jintao were among each other’s biggest boot-lickers.
The letter’s basic claim that Hong Kong’s system is perfect is so ludicrous that no Chinese official would dare make it. Indeed, Beijing’s current moves towards guided universal suffrage here show desperate recognition of the need for change. (Even calling it a ‘system’ is stretching it a bit. It’s a mess – some of it glorious, but much of it unacceptable, some of it destructive and most of it certainly capable of improvement.) And I’m still trying to work out the last sentence: “… ways in which we can govern ourselves to achieve the best outcomes … to preserve what we have.” Maybe an SCMP typo.
So, a quick Google later, and we find that the same writer has disparaged universal suffrage before, not very originally citing the US government shutdown and Thailand, and praising China’s benevolence to Hong Kong in a tone that would make Tung Chee-hwa blush. Digging a bit further, we find someone with the same name on page 9 in the Australian Chamber of Commerce. Chambers of Commerce are of course hives of mutual shoe-shining and perfect platforms for the propagation of self-serving views that might go down well in some benighted quarters. As How to Shoe-Shine Hong Kong Tycoons will make clear, by the way, you do not have to believe what you are saying.
I declare this weekend open with a dream of being presented, by Chief Executive Regina Ip in person, with a Bronze Bauhinia Star and a seat next to Bunny Chan on the Pearl River Delta Sustainable Cooperation and Hi-Tech Partnership Advisory Committee.