Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Forgetting one's dearly held views

Charles Moore says that Peregrine Worsthorne, still thriving at the age of 87, "claims to have forgotten why he ever held any of the strong views he once advanced". [1]

Perhaps that "curiously good position", as Moore calls it, sneaks up on one. As I motor along into the seventh decade of my life, I wonder, too, about once strongly-held positions, one's dearly-held views.  For example on democracy. I'm no longer as sure, as certain, as I once was that it's the sine qua non, the essential, I once thought it. 

"Down! down!" you outraged folk, "one savaging at a time, please!"
I've always held democracy to be dear. I was going to say that I've always lived in a democracy, but that's not right, is it?  Born in Tokyo, brought up in Italy, Australia, the US, Germany, they all seem to qualify. But then, there's my recent 21 years in Kong Kong, added to the four in China in the seventies. Hong Kong may look and feel just like a "normal" country, in every way free and fair, but it's not a democracy. Indeed, we marched in July 2005 for democracy, 500,000 of us, and ousted the then leader of our little land, Tung Chee-Hwa. There I am below.
1 July 2005, Hong Kong demonstration for democracy: 500,000 people
And we march every July first, for democracy, and I take part in those and in the regular letter-writing that accompanies.  I was chairman, a few years back, of the Campaign Committee for a local candidate for District Councillor (we lost, but it was fun -- and encouraging -- to see grass-roots democracy in action). And the reason we march and write letters and take part in various other civic activities about democracy in Hong Kong is precisely because there is no democracy in Hong Kong, at least as normally understood in the west.   But then that's just my point, isn't it? That the way it's understood in the west may not be the only way to understand it.

I read about debates about human rights around the world. There's a belief by the Left in the west, amounting to religious conviction, that the most important human right is the right to democratic freedom, the political right to vote. And that economic rights are secondary to that sacrosanct one. It is felt that economic liberalisation is all very well -- indeed that it's much to be desired, as it will lead as day leads to night, to more open political systems -- but that it is a secondary right, and one flowing from economic liberalisation (though, of course, the Left will argue, it could always be the case that political liberalisation could lead to economic freedom, so it's a two-way street, as it were. The experience of the old Soviet Union, now Russia, has not done much for that line of reasoning).

I don't hold to that view so strongly any more -- that is that political rights by some law of nature trump economic rights. Though I do still recall why I held it -- then again, I'm not 87 yet. 

Take where I live, for example.  China has lifted some 500 million people out of poverty, since I first arrived in 1976.  That is a massive feat and had enabled those so lifted a greater degree of dignity. Surely that counts for something. Counts for a lot, indeed.

Here in Hong Kong we don't have political rights in the way they're understood in Australia, the US, or Europe. But I don't feel the lack. We can vote for our District Councillors, and they're the ones who most impact one's immediate life: the house, transport, garbage collection. They in turn vote on Legislators, who pay some attention - I'm not going to claim they are laser-tuned to public views, but they pay some attention and are approachable on issues -- to the public, and who will take on the Administration from time to time. And the Administration, sensitive to the very fact that has not been voted into power, will send out for "Consultation" all manner of initiatives. Therefore, one can be involved in society, to the extent that one wishes. And that's worth something surely. Quite a lot, in fact.

Anyway, if this all sounds a touch reactionary, or even very reactionary, my main point is about the importance of Freedom -- democracy is important, but freedom arguably more so. We have freedom here in Hong Kong, though only partial democracy.  And even in China -- where they don't have the freedom of expression that we do enjoy here in Hong Kong -- they are nevertheless more free than many in the west understand.  (I'll write about this some more later).

And the subject's not so clear cut that you can't have a decent debate about it.  Below, for example, I'm posting the report of just such a debate here in Hong Kong last weekend (it may be here, but is usually behind a paywall)....  "Democracy won" says the report, but Pan Wei made some good points...

[1]  Spectator Notes, Charles Moore, The Spectator, 5 February 2011.  Here

A grown-up debate about democracy ... in Hong Kong

Packed into a room in the Convention and Exhibition Centre on Wednesday night, [9th Feb 11] 500-odd people witnessed something highly unusual in Hong Kong - a full-blown, warts-and-all debate on democracy.

The evils and otherwise of the Iraqi invasion and its aftermath, Nazism, communism, colonialism, Liu Xiaobo and one-man, one-vote suffrage were hammered out in an atmosphere that, for many in the audience, seemed light years from the stilted and coded confines of the usual Hong Kong political scene. It was, one Japanese banker remarked as he filed out later, "like a breath of fresh air in an ever more polluted city".
The debate saw four very different characters team up to confront the motion: "The world needs less democracy, not more." While there was plenty of fire and passion, there was also wit, warmth and a welcome air of mutual respect.
Lining up for the argument were veteran BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley and Peking University academic Pan Wei. They took on the team of Malaysian-based regional analyst and commentator Karim Raslan and the Times of London's columnist David Aaronovitch.
Four different backgrounds meant four very different approaches. There was Hawksley, the world-weary veteran of African and Asian battlefields, outlining the horrors faced by people who must suddenly confront the realities of an imposed democracy to please Western aid donors - warlordism, grotesque tribal abuses and rule by fear - without any of the institutional strength that can deliver it.
Pan represented the strident voice of an emerging superpower that is not prepared to blindly accept Western intellectual conceits, dissecting the "absurdities" of a majority principle that can ignore what is effective. "I support democracy in the West when it functions well," he said. "But I don't when it doesn't work."
In return, Karim offered the perspective of Southeast Asia - arguably the world's most culturally and politically diverse region. He spoke of a democracy that needed to fit within historical and cultural realities and, above all else, a means to deliver social justice and development. Deliberately backing into his argument, he warned that democracy could ultimately not be denied given the drive of human nature "to always want more".
And then came Aaronovitch, equipped with spring-loaded eyebrows ever ready to unleash a Churchillian glower at his opponents. With a style if not of the Oxford Union, then at least an Oxford pub brawl, he showed no appetite for "hypocrisy" or nuance about the basic wisdom of the masses of any culture nor any suggestion that a group of people were incapable of choosing their own leaders.
He told of a childhood spent listening to the apologia of his parents - both members of the British Communist Party - as they confronted the fag end of communism in Eastern Europe. "Never withhold from other people something you would not be willing to live under yourself," he thundered.
Each speaker had the floor for 10 minutes, and were marshalled by Shanghai broadcaster Pan Xiaoli.
It was when the argument was opened to the audience that the evening really took flight, bringing out the best in the speakers as they defended and refined their arguments.
Pan Wei, who had to compete in his second language, was at his most eloquent - and stinging - as he urged his audience to consider the practical and the realistic rather than the "absolute". "Why would we want such a primitive and simple system ... because we expect good governance? What if it doesn't lead to that? We are talking about theology," he said.
"We need new horizons, something to open our minds ... there must be a third way." He warned against the lingering dangers of the "missionary habit" of the West.
The audience also brought Aaronovitch the counter-puncher to the fore. When Hawksley raised the unelected British House of Lords as proof of the flaws even in advanced democracies, Aaronovitch pounced. Noting he was relieved that Hawksley was a foreign correspondent and not covering domestic politics, he pointed out that the Lords had strictly limited legislative force and was the subject of an open and ongoing debate about its worth. Judging from the expression on his face, Hawksley would have preferred to be back in some war-torn hellhole at that moment.
Karim, meanwhile, introduced the humble Indonesian trishaw driver who does not care who the president is and whose livelihood depends on having a sensible town mayor with sound policies - yet who wants a stake in his own future.
Pan Wei skirted a question from the audience - one that moderator Pan Xiaoli initially attempted to soften - about whether any democracies had killed millions of their own people. But he could not dodge further questions from Aaronovitch, who asked how, if the Chinese system were so robust, could a single man - Nobel laureate Liu - be sentenced to 11 years' jail.
Pan simply replied that he did not agree with the detention of Liu.
The tone soon lightened as the hat was passed among the audience to gather the votes. Aaronovitch pounced again to steal the vital last word. How would the audience feel if they were told they could not be trusted with voting, or that a panel of technocratic experts would be convened to decide the answers for them. "Or maybe I will just decide for you ... We have won this debate with 95.5 per cent of the vote," he said to laughter that rang long and deep. Even Hawksley and Pan were giggling at that point.
Karim and Aaronovitch did in fact win, though by 72 per cent to 24 per cent.
Yana Peel, co-director of the debate's organiser, non-profit media group Intelligence Squared, said the group was thrilled that the night had served its cause of promoting "intellectual entertainment".
The debate was the fifth the group had organised but the first to tackle politics head-on. "There are always good speakers coming through Hong Kong ... What we are trying to do is elevate these kinds of discussions into something more gladiatorial and stimulating," she said. "It is not just about people having their own perceptions challenged, but providing intellectual entertainment."