Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Compromise: Democracy and Hong Kong

It is striking how difficult it has been to come to a compromise in the debate over the proposal for electing the Hong Kong Chief Executive . From one point of view, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC) refused to compromise with pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong when it announced a very restrictive format on 31 August 2014. Even pro-establishment figures admitted that the format is restrictive and not what Hong Kong had hoped for, but they recommend that HK “pocket it” first—implying a better mechanism is achievable down the road (but inadvertently admitting the package is not satisfactory). But one could also go further back and note that the pan-democrats painted themselves in a corner by demanding “civil nominations” when the Basic Law clearly calls for CE candidates to be nominated by a Nominating Committee. Instead of compromising and seeking to change the makeup of the Nominating Committee (which is the same 1200 people who made up the Electoral Committee in 2012, a committee made up mostly of pro-establishment figures), which could have been broadened and made more democratic, pan-democrats sought a much more open nominating system.

The problem with the Nominating Committee is that, with the restriction that only 2-3 candidates can be nominated, and a high threshold of 50 percent support for nomination, it basically decides the election before it is put to the public. The 19th century New York City Democratic Party machine leader Boss Tweed is famous for having said, “I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” So while the pan-dems’ objections are understandable, the push for “full universal suffrage” was always going to be difficult. Many argue that it made Beijing less willing to compromise.

There is no evidence, however, that Beijing would ever have compromised. C.Y. Leung even said as much, when he admitted to the NY Times and WSJ that real democracy would mean that the CE would have to listen to poor people. It is interesting that he did not understand how this elitist and anti-democratic argument would sound, both abroad and back in HK.  He made clear something we have long known, that neither the oligarchs who run Hong Kong nor the Party in Beijing are willing to allow full democracy in Hong Kong.

The best hope was for some compromise. As I’ve mentioned above, the pan-democrats pushed too hard for civil nomination, and the SCNPC pushed too hard in the other direction. Moderate democrats like Ronny Tong who had offered compromises were literally in tears on August 31, 2014, when the proposed framework was announced. Their attempts at compromise had been ignored.

Now pro-establishment politicians want the pan-democrats to be more pragmatic and realistic. But the members of the Democratic Party who compromised back in 2010 on the 2012 election with the promise that they would have “universal suffrage” in 2017 feel betrayed. This proposed system is not what they had envisioned when they agreed to “universal suffrage.” Having been criticized by the more radical elements of the pan-democratic movement, they now feel stabbed in the back by Beijing. The radicals can say, “See, you were wrong to compromise.”

Pro-establishment figures have repeatedly claimed that pan-democrats need to be more pragmatic, that they need to compromise (see here and here). They say opponents need to accept Bejing, and balance idealism and pragmatism. This is true, but it seems to ignores that Leung and Beijing have no intention of allowing free elections.

Is compromise possible in the future? Beijing officials have ruled out any compromise now, but the government has had a campaign to “pocket now” the proposed reforms and revise them in the future. But Beijing officials have refused to consider any future revisions. Thus, the government’s own campaign recognizes the proposals are not ideal, and by refusing to make any compromises now or promises for changes in the future, it makes them seem uncompromising. They also insist that the same framework will imposed for the 2022 elections.

This is all very sad for Hong Kong. Beijing and pro-establishment figures refuse to compromise for fear of looking weak, and pro-democracy leaders fear attacks from the radical fringe if they seek compromise. The 31 August decision made compromise impossible. Elections could produce a more legitimate CE and can change the politics of a place because candidates have to make promises to the public to get elected. On the other hand, if the elections are “North Korean style”, then they would not have this positive effect. We will never know whether a compromise would have been possible. But we do know that Hong Kong will continue with a deadlocked legislature and an unpopular and weak Chief Executive, whether C.Y. Leung runs for reelection or not. The weakness comes from the institutions, not the personalities, and failure to compromise means we will continue muddling along.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Ants and Superstition

I came back to my office after two weeks away to find ants. Not a line of ants, or an ant colony, but about 10 "explorer ants" per hour crossing my desk in different directions and on different parts of the desk. They are distracting, and also worrisome: where are they coming from? Will they eat my books? Since there is no food, and I have not been eating my sandwich at my desk for two weeks, it is quite a mystery.

I mentioned this problem to our office secretary, so she could have someone deal with it, either by putting some sort of pesticide or checking where the ants are coming from. I don't want them spraying pesticides while I'm here, but in a week I'll be away again so I told her they could perhaps wait until then.

The next day, when I went to the main office, my secretary asked me if I had seen the office tea lady yet (she is the woman who cleans, delivers mail, and brings water to the offices for making tea), and I said no. My secretary then told me that our tea lady had bought some poison. It is the kind that ants take back to their colony so that it kills off all the ants, not just the one who came upon the poison. She tells me that the tea lady says it is very effective, but then laughingly adds that the tea lady told her that we should not talk about the poison in front of the ants while in my office. The tea lady says that if the ants hear people talk about the poison, they will not eat it.  My secretary and I laughingly exchanged comments on how odd it is to think ants could understand us. Since I did not know how to actually use the poison (which looked like dry coffee grounds inside a small clear plastic box the size of a stamp), my secretary said the tea lady would come by my office to help.

About a half hour later, the tea lady came to my office wearing rubber gloves (she sometimes uses them for cleaning too) and holding a box cutter. To my astonishment, she spoke to me in English (we always speak in Mandarin, though I have long known that her English is actually very good) and talks about the poison. Then she says, laughing, that the ants don't understand English, so it is OK for us to talk about the poison in English. She was saying this while laughing--she clearly realized the absurdity of what she was saying, yet was also serious and "believed" it.

Anthropologists have also long discussed the nature of "belief."  The tea lady's belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not complete. There is some doubt in her mind, and she surely knows I, as a foreigner, cannot be expected to believe such a thing. Her belief in the ability of ants to understand Cantonese is not the same as a faithful pilgrim's belief that a deity can heal her son, or protect her family. It is not the same as the belief that the world is round, or any other "self-evident" belief that would make us become emotionally upset if we met someone who denied it.

Anthropologists have long critiqued the idea of "superstition" because one person's superstition is someone else's religion. The idea of virgin birth and resurrection can seem as preposterous as the idea of luck coming from a rabbit's foot or horse shoe, to those of another culture. But here is a case where the term "superstition" is actually useful: the tea lady herself recognized that the idea that the ants could understand her talking about poison was preposterous at one level. It was not an idea she was completely attached to. At the same time, she behaved as though it was "better to be safe than sorry" so did not want to talk about poison in front of the ants, at least not in Cantonese. Some scholars have defined superstition as a belief that is recognized as not part of the culture's mainstream. There are problems with this definition, but it can be useful, especially for ants who can understand Cantonese.

I wonder if the ants can read blogs on the internet. I'll have to change the password on my office computer to make sure they can't read this.