Improbable democracies or impossible benchmarks

In Hong Kong, British style democracy is being nudged out by Sinicized democratic norms, where the Communist Party of China, and not citizens, determine the limits of democratic conventions.

But it is not just China which feels compelled to sculpt the principles of classic, citizen-centric democracy to the objective conditions on the ground. Post-colonial Africa and Asia are rife with mutants of the Westminster model, tweaked to preserve the universal vote, Parliament, the Judiciary and a “Free Press” as symbols, respectively, of “free choice” and vertical and horizontal accountability, co-existing, improbably, with long stretches of single party rule.

“Socialist” Tanzania is an African example, where the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has been regularly voted into power since Independence in 1961. So complete is the hold of the Presidency that a Nelson’s eye was turned to the threat of COVID-19 because populist President John Magufuli — now deceased — dismissed the pandemic as a hoax.

It is not just China which feels compelled to sculpt the principles of classic, citizen-centric democracy to the objective conditions on the ground.

India was under the chokehold of the Congress party — from 1952 to 1989, albeit with a brief interlude of coalition governments in the mid-1970s. From 1990 till 2019, coalitions — led alternatively by the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — ruled, lapsing into a majority BJP government in 2019. No credible national challenger is visible.

Hong Kong, ceded to Britain in 1842, became an improbable democracy once it was transferred in 1997 to China — useful only as a cover to continue access to the supply of international capital and trade which Hong Kong’s international ecosystem and democratic trappings attracted.

Post-colonial India frenziedly completed localisation of its political and governance structures within three years of Independence. China, doggedly, pursued a longer game. For two decades, it maintained the trappings of a western democracy inherited from the colonial period in Hong Kong — bias towards citizen freedoms rather than State power and unbelievably, at least from the prickly South Asian perspective about localisation of governance positions, even sitting judges from Anglo-Saxon countries — ostensibly to preserve its internationalist culture and extend meaningful assurance about the continued prevalence of the familiar rule of law protections for international finance and global trade in the entrepot.

Post-colonial India frenziedly completed localisation of its political and governance structures within three years of Independence. China, doggedly, pursued a longer game.

In 1997, China’s share in world GDP was just 4 percent — around India’s share today. By 2019, it had grown to 14 percent (constant 2010 US$) rivaling the 22 percent share of the United States. Markets in the mainland — financial and for goods and services — also grew to become the purveyors of growth in Hong Kong, rather than the other way around. Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for 8 percent of China’s in 1997, which slipped to 2 percent by 2019. The fully convertible HK$ — another bulwark of stability that China preserved — is today, an anomaly if the domestic Renminbi (Yuan) is to become the currency of global choice.

China no longer needs the fig leaf of a “frozen in time, democratic” Hong Kong to signal its pragmatism and internationalism. This explains the targeted erosion of deviant democratic norms like multi-party elections. Political aspirants will now be screened for a “Patriotism” quotient. The objective is to bend the “One Country, Two Systems” paradigm to converge towards the single party mainland model.

There is international outrage aplenty, around the undermining of Hong Kong, labeled by Freedom House till 2020, as “Partly Free” versus “Not Free” China. Freedom House also labels India as “Partly Free.” People vote with their feet to access a bouquet of economic and political options, which enable them to enhance well-being. How well the rankings balance political ideology with the choices people make is debatable.

Hong Kong’s origins in 19th century mercantilism were softened by 20th century British social democracy. But at heart, it remained deeply hierarchical.

Hong Kong was more a vehicle to protect the rights of international capital rather than the rights of its 7.5 million (2019) citizens — one sixth of whom could be recent immigrants sent across from the mainland. Its origins in 19th century mercantilism were softened by 20th century British social democracy. But at heart, it remained deeply hierarchical, with financial, trade and real estate oligarchs firmly in control.

The elitist architecture of Hong Kong is best illustrated by the fact that a mere 7,000 people opted for an offer for fast-track residence in the UK, between July 2000 to January 2021. Clearly, pragmatic, ordinary Hong Kongers prefer to risk surrendering future political freedoms rather than leave China, growing at 6 percent per year, to sign up for the United Kingdom, growing at 2 percent — with the added uncertainty of a rocky political future. Rapid growth — China style — not only enriches the top 1 percent but also those at the bottom as evidenced by its impressive track record of lifting 800 million citizens out of poverty.

An asymmetric regard for democracy — of the classical Western variety — depending on how much one gains from the system, has also become increasingly discernible in India, post the coming to power of Modi’s BJP.

There is a difference between sullen acceptance of shrinking citizen rights and a voluntary giving-up of such rights.

The puzzlingly, diminishing voices of dissent against the pragmatic use of brute, political power, legally acquired, via the dysfunctional levers of Indian democracy — a first-past-the-post electoral system, which enables disregard for sectional interests and the absence of compulsory inner party democracy — align with the Hong Kong paradox of not enough people being invested in a “free” albeit shambolic democracy, which short-changes the bottom three quintiles.

But there is a difference between sullen acceptance of shrinking citizen rights and a voluntary giving-up of such rights. During the 1962 war with China, ordinary Indian families in Punjab, at the urging of the then charismatic Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon, willingly forsook their right to own gold jewelry by donating it for the war effort, such was their trust in the government.

The intervening six decades have eroded this trust. The stranglehold of elites has not faded and patrimony still rules creating a gulf between the rulers and the ruled. Politicians and public officials have lost their agency tied to the “high moral ground,” which characterised the Freedom Struggle. Those at the front lines of public protests are often mere fodder, sometimes paid for, whilst the political and economic “Great Games” are played by elites behind closed doors.

The stranglehold of elites has not faded and patrimony still rules creating a gulf between the rulers and the ruled.

The ongoing, albeit, increasingly tepid, three-month old “Farm Agitation,” on the outskirts of Delhi, presents the paradox of a large group of people, demanding the withdrawal of sensible agricultural reform legislation, which could harm only a small group of rural farming and commercial — the top 10 percent who own 32 percent of the land in Punjab and operate cartelised agricultural produce markets. Sagely, the government has not capitulated to this “impossible” demand, just to accommodate template, democratic norms.

But the jury is out on why democracy is in retreat globally and the number of “improbable democracies” has increased since 2005. Is it time to ground impossibly high “best practice” governance benchmarks to the prevailing complexities in developing Asia and Africa, where democracy must be practiced?

This article first appeared in orfonline.org March 22, 2021 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/improbable-democracies-or-impossible-governance-benchmarks/

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