An HKFP story earlier this month – “Voices from the street: What Hongkongers make of the leadership race” – captured the predominant public perception towards the ongoing chief executive election in Hong Kong.
Such sentiments are understandable and perhaps reflective of the views of quite a lot of Hongkongers, particularly the sense of disillusionment on the state of our politics and how this election does not belong to us at all.
While these frustrations are acutely felt, it would be a shame (even dangerous) if we decided to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is no doubt about the constraints we face, yet however bad the odds and how heavily the cards are stacked against us, we owe it to ourselves to make sure this election is for us.
Specifically, our political voices will be vital to preserve hope, shape our vision and demonstrate our democratic values.
The reality we face prevents us from having the right to vote, but it does not prevent us from participating at all.
At its heart, democracy is not simply about elections but about representation and allowing for different opinions to be voiced. This demands our political participation. In an imperfect system, we have to recognize that voting is only one formal mechanism for our voices to be heard.
In the current election, we have already seen the emergence of various informal mechanisms for our participation. From candidate John Tsang’s campaign fundraiser to law professor Benny Tai’s unofficial referendum, it is amazing to see these innovative platforms showcasing public sentiment.
You may ask: What is the point of engaging at all in an “unwinnable battle”? But even if we all recognize that our elections have always been a black box process, it doesn’t mean that the outcome has been predetermined. There is always the 1% possibility.
I believe we are still at a point where no one knows what the ideal endgame is – and this presents an opportunity. Most political actors (dare I say even the pro-establishment camp or the Chinese government) recognize the increasing political divide in Hong Kong and the adverse effects on future governance and development if we have yet another divisive leader without public support.
To have a shot at pushing for change requires us to show them what kind of leader we need. It is we who will let this imperfect system win if we give up and become indifferent to the process.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that this is not just about who gets elected, but about the vision and policy direction that will ultimately be adopted in the next five years.
There is no better time to shape that vision than now when all candidates are still campaigning and formulating their views on public policies. This is a time when they will be more receptive to ideas, when we can bring key issues up in the public arena for debate that would otherwise not have attracted attention.
The key is in finding the right channel to offer our feedback. For instance, various professional bodies (tied to functional constituencies) have the potential to serve as platforms of representation to drive political and policy change. Look no further for examples than the medical sector and its role both in the democratic reform package in 2015 and the Medical Council reform in 2016.
Although our suggestions may not always be perfect or right, our very participation helps to stimulate the debate that will hopefully go a long way to making better policies. If we value democracy, we have a responsibility to be an informed and engaged citizenry regardless of whether we have a right to vote.
Values: Democratic participation as a value in itself
More importantly, even if it is a rigged election, democratic participation (even in the absence of a formal vote) is a value and good in itself.
Renowned Indian economist Amartya Sen has said that democracy is not just about the “mechanical conditions” (such as voting or majority rule), but that it is a universal value. Political participation has an intrinsic value, providing an opportunity for citizens to learn from one another and for society to form and protect the values it holds dear.
Throughout Hong Kong’s history, it was always our democratic spirit that has carried us through various challenges. The current election is yet another chance for us to demonstrate our values to the world.
What this election is about
Finally, many may argue that informal democratic participation signifies acceptance or buying into the “lesser evil” argument or the flawed system. But we have to remember that no system is perfect. We can either give up and lose our voice now, or engage and fight for what we want.
You may say naïve idealism will not work. To which I reply: yes, idealism alone is not enough, but the key is to remain skeptical but not cynical. Because being skeptical means we need to actively question and critique the imperfections we see, and being cynical means dismissing any possibilities for change.
Yet in times when possibilities are limited, it is ever more important to remain hopeful while recognizing the constraints.
Because democracy will always be an ongoing experiment, and the onus is on us to make it better.