Hong Kong has never been a democracy and it is certainly not one now. It has, in fact, become decidedly less democratic in the last few years. And that is a reason for the friends of a democratic Hong Kong to feel down-hearted. But there is no need for despair. There is need rather for a strategic retreat and for tactical rethinking.
Democracy is, after all, more than a governmental system; it is, first of all, an ideal – one that is never fully realized but can only be approximated. It is the ideal of a group of people who together rule themselves. This is most easily pursued in a small group of mature, informed, and like-minded people. But states and, in particular, modern states are not like this. There are vast numbers of citizen of all ages in all kinds of condition, with degrees of knowledge or ignorance, who are anything but like-minded. The ideal of democracy thus becomes easily confused. And, worse, we lose sight of what lies behind it which is a conception of human nature as capable of a proud self-determination.
No political order, whatever its arrangements may be, can be considered genuinely democratic unless it is animated by this understanding of human nature and by the consequent ideal of shared self-rule. In order for a society to be democratic, the ideal of democracy must, in other words, be a live idea to its members. They must, moreover, be willing and able to relate to each other in terms of this ideal. They must be capable of a democratic practice not just at the level of government but in their daily interactions. Only in this way can a democratic politics be most fully realized.
There is today no democratic politics in Hong Kong. But it is still possible to foster the idea of human self-determination, to engage in democratic practices, and to nurture the ideal of democratic rule. To this end it is all important that there still exists in Hong Kong today the opportunity for association. The time for protest marches may be over; the electoral and legislative process has been stripped of its democratic elements; policy is no longer made by Hong Kongers themselves but by patriots in Beijing. There are, however, still ways to nurture the spirit of democracy and that has to be the task now for dedicated Hong Kong democrats. There are a number of ways this task can be pursued. Here are six thoughts on this topic.
- Associate with others dedicated like you to the exploration of democratic ideals. Democracy is a social ideal built not only on the notion of self-rule but also that of mutual support. You can have democratic thoughts when you are alone. But you cannot be a democrat on your own.
- You don’t need to fret all the time about Hong Kong or Chinese politics. Devote yourself, instead, to the study of other times and places: the development of democracy in ancient Greece; the French Revolution and its aftermath; the founding of the American Republic. There are important elements of democracy to be found even in early Chinese history. Look for them.
- Study political philosophy. Reading Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics might be a starting point. Combine this with Aristotle account of the democratic constitution of Athens. Read Hegel’s Philosophy of Right together with Marx’s critical notes on that book. Read Hannah Arendt. They all open your eyes to other and broader ways of thinking about politics. Authoritarians want you to believe that there is no alternative to the status quo. It is important to see how wrong they are.
- Learn from those who have lived under authoritarian regimes how to say things without exposing yourself to danger. One can write or speak about ancient Egypt and mean the here and now. Make the spaces between your words do the work. Be eloquent with your silences.
- See your opponents not as oppressors, which they certainly are, but as victims of a narrow and demeaning view of themselves, of what it is to be human. Pity them, not for the constraints they impose on the liberty of others, but their own inner lack of freedom.
- Above all, make sure that you and your group rule themselves in a democratic fashion. Be aware of the danger of being undemocratic in the pursuit of democracy. Practice democracy locally, in relation to those next to you. Make this the ferment that will eventually transform all of society.
- Finally, remember that all this takes time (A generation? A century?). Be patient. In the drought my nasturtiums died in the garden. But now the rain has brought them back and we can suddenly hope to see them bloom again.