Friday, 18 May 2012

empty gestures

It isn’t often that political activity in Hong Kong makes the news elsewhere in the world, so it’s unlikely that many people will be aware of the latest shenanigans in the territory. Briefly, in January 2010, five members of what the local media call the ‘pan-Democrats’ resigned from the territory’s Legislative Council in order to force what they claimed as a de facto referendum on democratic reform and the abolition of the territory’s so-called ‘functional constituencies’.

Functional constituencies are voting blocs based on voters’ occupations, but they cover only professional occupations such as medicine, law, education and accountancy and are thus fundamentally anti-democratic, because those who are eligible to vote in functional constituencies have two votes to the single vote that the remainder of the population are allowed.

The key point in this saga is that these five legislators immediately stood for re-election in the subsequent by-elections. The Hong Kong government is now trying to introduce a bill that would bar anyone who resigns from the Legislative Council from standing for re-election within six months of that resignation. The pan-Democrats are incensed.

It should be noted that not every Hong Kong political party with ‘democracy’ or a similar word in its name is genuinely supportive of democracy. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which supports authoritarian rule in the rest of China and takes a pro-Beijing stance on matters related to Hong Kong, reminds me of a comment made by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language:
…the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.
Needless to say, the DAB is not included in the term ‘pan-Democrats’. And although the government’s proposed bill is opposed by all the parties that are included, most restrict that opposition to asking the government to withdraw its proposal. However, a couple of radical legislators have taken their opposition one step further by staging a filibuster in the Legislative Council. This has caused utter chaos in the council, with all-night sittings and suspension of proceedings because not enough members have been present to make up a quorum according to the council’s rules of procedure. This farce has also attracted a lot of hostility from the general public, because important business is being blocked.

The radicals believe that preserving the right of legislators to resign protects the fragile democracy of Hong Kong, but nobody is suggesting that a legislator cannot resign on a point of principle. Resignation in such circumstances has long been a cornerstone of democracy, but a resignation must involve a real personal sacrifice, or it is worthless. Resigning merely to stand for re-election in a subsequent by-election for the post that is resigned from is arrogant, and it is an empty gesture. It treats the electorate, collectively, with contempt.