New Democracy can be learned in Hong Kong

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By Kathleen Ferrier and Adrienne Simons

Out of necessity, Hong Kong experiments with new forms of democracy. This can result in interesting lessons for the world.

Photo: Ms Ferrier at BrightHK event (credit: BrightHK)

It is clear: we want to organize it all by ourselves, we want to work in flat organisations and we prefer to negotiate ourselves. This is what the success of Uber and Airbnb are based on; not democracy but the WEconomy makes people feel they have influence. That is strange, because in a democracy like the Netherlands for instance – or in democracies generally -, elected politicians should be able to count on the trust of the citizens. But in Europe and the US, we see exactly the opposite: the gap between elected representatives and citizens has become so wide, that it results in the rise of populists.

Hong Kong has the unique possibility to make democratic principles future-proof. The city has a 50 years period to grow from a British colony to a – headstrong – part of China. It is an experiment with new forms of democracy. On the occasion of the Hong Kong legislative elections it is interesting to have a closer look. 

More and more people in Hong Kong ask themselves what democracy anno c 2016 should be like. The western multi-party democratic systems are no longer an attractive example. Brexit and the US elections are mentioned as an explanation for this reticence. Also in the old democracies themselves, more and more people start questioning this model. For instance Jefferey Green, in “The Shadow of Unfairness” makes clear that citizens should not wait for politicians but take responsibility themselves, to achieve what they find important.

Remarkable enough we hear exactly the same here in Hong Kong. But active citizens do not turn their backs to politics by creating economic and social cooperatives, here they attempt to integrate the WEconomy into the parliamentary system. Political consciousness in Hong Kong is high, democracy here is synonymous to ‘anti-Beijing’ and the preservation of own values. That is why people are willing to fight for a better and local version of democracy. This creates chances to experiment with new forms.

An outspoken advocate of this is Benny Tai, professor at the University of Hong Kong. He is the man behind Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a pamphlet that, two years ago resulted in the Umbrella Revolution, a political movement that kept the financial heart of Hong Kong occupied for 76 days in 2014.

Tai puts his cards on a network-democracy, a new political structure in which citizens temporarily organize around an idea they are passionate about. By doing so they form a horizontal governance structure in which the exchange of knowledge is central. Not the professional politician but the expert has the last word.

A good example of the strength of networks is Bright Hong Kong, where, by focusing on the relation between passion and knowledge, people from many different backgrounds are brought together around the breakfast table. This has resulted in interesting connections and networks, even tot he extend that the local government has taken notice of it.

Also Paul Zimmerman, Dutch from origin and he himself a candidate in the recent LegCo elections, bets on experiments. According to him, for future proof democracies we have to watch the big cities in Asia, Africa and Latin –America. The limited space in Hong Kong obliges people to seek creative solutions. There is literally no space to deny interaction with others. The role of mayors, world wide, has become more concrete, a very positive development. To speak with the famous former mayor of New York: “There is no Republican or Democratic way to repair the sewerage.” In stead of debates from ideological trenches, we better seek ways of working together to solve our problems.

“Democracy is not for scared people” is a very true saying.

Experimenting with new and local forms of democracy is vital for Hong Kong. Resignation has to end if Hong Kong citizens do not want to be swallowed up by China. The necessity to experiment is high. This urgency will also benefit the old democracies. Hopefully they keep an eye on this small “test-lab”, also out of self-interest. That will place Hong Kong under a magnifying glass and Beijing should, as a result, comply with the rules after the elections of September 4th.

The knife cuts both ways: peer-to-peer politics across national borders. The earth is flat again.


[starbox desc=”Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier was a Member of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands between 2002 and 2012. Ferrier moved to Hong Kong in August 2013 and is now a member of the Environmental and Energy Council of the European Chamber of Commerce.

Adrienne Simons

Adrienne Simons is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. She writes about China and Hong Kong for Dutch media.