Tom Doctoroff
Tom Doctoroff

When democracy movements emerge, like the recent one on Hong Kong, Western observers mostly fail to understand what kind of democracy people are asking for. In Hong Kong it´s not a Western edition, writes China veteran Tom Doctoroff from Hong Kong in the Huffington Post.

Tom Doctoroff:

For the past week, the commercial arteries of Hong Kong have been clogged with (mostly) student demonstrators clamoring for “democracy.” I wove through crowds that ranged from sparse and listless to dense and energized. The advertising guy in me couldn’t help conducting mini-focus groups into motivations and mood. The protesters were polite and clear on objectives: a step down by the Communist Party from its proclamation that “universal suffrage” will have Chinese characteristics. Will “one man, one vote” will be stage-managed? Will Beijing and the oligarchic elite of Hong Kong always dictate the terms of political debate?

What is the end game here? I predict resolution, albeit one unsatisfying to most Westerners as well as a minority of Hong Kong citizens who aspire an American brand of democracy. Hong Kong will remain open for business.

Whether or not chaos erupts depends on two questions: What type of democracy do Hong Kong people crave? (In a million parallel universes, the central government will never permit Western-style democracy. Territorial disintegration, political or military, is a matter of national security, the third rail of Chinese anxiety.) And will the Community Party, constructed for engagement with various societal factions, deem protestors worthy of two-way dialog?

First, Hong Kong is not becoming Western, and neither are the political aspirations of its people, despite decades of tutelage under British administration. The Chinese, including Hong Kongers who have never taken stability for granted, are supreme pragmatists.

The protests are as much about economic despair — an inability to control material destiny — as they are political grievances. The cozy relationship between leadership and tycoons is even more co-dependent today as it was during the colonial era. Land rights are jealously guarded and real estate is more expensive than ever. Home ownership is inextricably linked to both self-respect and marital prospects, but young people can’t afford to buy an apartment. More broadly, I suspect Hong Kong’s new generation is unsettled by diffused anxiety, a fear of limited potential and increased competition. Ten or fifteen years ago, young professionals trumped mainland counterparts. This is no longer the case.

The Chinese dream of “democracy” has traditionally been functional, even utilitarian. Confucian societies have historically been patriarchic, at peace with top-down compliance. The son/subject does not exist independent of his obligations to father/ruler. That relationship is respected as long as order is maintained and economic platforms of individual progress or solidly constructed. This explains why Britain’s Chinese subjects in Hong Kong never revolted against their colonial overlords. Democracy in China has been tantamount to responsive, not representative, government. Culture — the relationship between individuals and society — is deeply entrenched. Hong Kong is commercially and economically Westernized, but it will never be Western. In a morphing, unpredictable world, mainlanders and Hong Kongers agree chaos should be avoided at all costs. Political philosophy that fails to yield bread-and-butter benefits still quickly floats away.

More in the Huffington Post.

Tom Doctoroff is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´ request form.

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