HK’s unofficial poll ‘draws Beijing’s ire’

More than 200,000 residents of Hong Kong did something on Friday that no one in mainland China can do: They participated in a free vote over their political future, The New York Times reports:

The results are nonbinding because the election is not official: It is a referendum held by a civic group on how the 7.2 million people in Hong Kong, a former British colony, will elect their head of government. The voting on Friday was through computers and mobile phones, with organizers saying they would have been pleased if 100,000 people had cast ballots over the entire 10-day voting period, which ends June 29…..

The referendum’s organizers have vowed to disrupt the city’s central business district later this year with a sit-in protest, called Occupy Central, drawing on civil disobedience principles — Henry David Thoreau is often invoked — should the central government in Beijing and Hong Kong’s administration fail to come up with a plan for universal suffrage, promised by 2017, that meets international standards for free and fair elections. Mr. Leung, who took office in 2012, was chosen by a group of fewer than 1,200 Hong Kong residents.

“Organizers of the referendum say its online voting platform has faced cyberattacks in recent days,” The Times reports:

The standoff comes as one authoritative poll shows that dissatisfaction in Hong Kong with the way Beijing is managing its rule over the territory is at its highest level in a decade. The trend is especially pronounced among the young, with 82 percent of permanent residents aged 21 to 29 polled in December and January by the Hong Kong Transition Project expressing dissatisfaction.

Such feelings are being driven by concern that Hong Kong’s civil liberties, guaranteed until 2047, are being slowly eroded as the mainland’s economic and political influence grows. A policy document, or white paper, recently issued by the State Council reminded Hong Kong’s people that their liberties were granted solely by Beijing and also said that judges and other government officials must be “patriots,” language that Hong Kong’s bar association says encroaches on judicial independence.

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Uyghurs ‘trapped in a virtual cage’

Chinese authorities have exerted effective control over how Uyghurs seek, receive and impart information online by employing technical and legislative strategies, according to Trapped in a Virtual Cage: Chinese State Repression of Uyghurs Online. The new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project also documents how the Communist authorities use the criminal justice system to create an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and self-censorship.

“It is no surprise Chinese officials have placed unprecedented controls over the Uyghur Internet. They fear that an open online environment in East Turkestan will expose egregious human rights abuses committed against the Uyghur people under their administration,” said UHRP director, Alim Seytoff. “This report is the most comprehensive analysis available on the systemic repression of Uyghur online activity. The Chinese authorities can, at will, imprison Uyghurs who peacefully express dissent online and deny Uyghurs access to the Internet at the flick of a switch.”

“The Internet in East Turkestan is not the vehicle for empowerment, accountability and freedom that it is in the democracies of the world. What it represents, however, is another means for the Chinese state to disseminate propaganda and falsehoods about the Uyghur condition, as well as to flush out its perceived enemies,” added Mr. Seytoff.

China: harsh sentences for anti-corruption activists

China-_Tre_Activists_-_Liu_-_Wei-LiNew Citizens’ Movement activists Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping were each sentenced to six and a half years in prison on Thursday, while a third, Li Sihua, received a sentence of three years, China Digital Times reports.

The New Citizens advocate causes such as asset disclosure by officials and education rights for migrants’ children; these judgments are the latest in a series against members of the movement, which has been systematically dismantled over the past year. From Patrick Boehler at South China Morning Post:

The Yushui District People’s Court in Xinyu found all three defendants guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Liu and Wei were also found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order in a public space” and “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement”.

The Xinyu verdicts are the harshest reported so far in a nationwide crackdown on the New Citizens Movement that started last year.

[…] Local authorities in Xinyu have long considered the three “thorns in their eyes”, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The local authorities have essentially used the current crackdown as an opportunity,” she said. [Source]

The charges of “using an evil cult” refer to messages Liu and Wei sent about the trial of a Falun Gong practitioner in 2012. A press release from Amnesty International reported that some of the charges had been changed without proper notice:

The court changed the charge from “illegal assembly” to the more heavy charge of “picking quarrels and creating troubles” six months after the trial and just days before the sentencing. This sudden change meant that Liu Ping’s lawyers, Si Weijiang and Yang Xuelin, were only informed of the date of the sentencing two days in advance. This violates the legal requirement of three days’ advance notice, and forced the lawyers to be absent at the sentencing due to other court appearances. [Source]

The three’s trial in Xinyu in December—their second, after they aborted the first by dismissing their own lawyers in protest—was marked by pandemonium outside the courthouse. Defence lawyers including Pu Zhiqiang, himself recently arrested, reported that hundreds of “government-appointed thugs” surrounded them, shoving and hurling insults. (A subsequent directory from the State Council Information Office ordered that “all online news on the case of Liu Ping and the rest […] especially news related to the comments and actions of their lawyers” be deleted.) The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow reported on Wednesday that local authorities had taken a heavy-handed approach ahead of the sentencing as well….

“This is a crazy retaliation, a shameless retaliation, which has no connection with the law, the legal system or rule of law,” the New Citizens Movement said in a statement on its website. “This is not just a retaliation against Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua but retaliates against and dishonors the rights of citizens.”

“The harsh sentences are just the latest moves in the politically motivated crackdown on the New Citizens’ Movement,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said in an e-mailed statement. “They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

Representative democracy ‘losing its luster’

4th revolutionAs Asian countries generate clever ideas for reforming government, the West’s greatest strength — representative democracy — is losing its luster, argue two leading analysts. Democratic governments increasingly make promises that they cannot deliver on and allow themselves to be captured by special interests or diverted by short-term considerations, according to The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

This crisis of Western liberal democracy has been brewing for decades, but it has become acute in the last few years for three reasons, they write for the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs:

First is the increasingly unsustainable debt burden that Western states are carrying. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession led to an explosion in public debt: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, global public debt reached $50.6 trillion in 2013, compared with just $22 trillion in 2003. …..

The second factor that has thrown the deficiencies of contemporary Western governance into sharp relief is the rapid development of information technology. ….. Western governments have failed to harness the full potential of the digital revolution, often stumbling in their attempts to make themselves more Internet-friendly…..

The third ongoing test of Western-style liberal democracy is the impressive track records in recent years of other models, particularly the modernizing authoritarianism pursued by Asian countries such as China and Singapore. For the first time since the middle of the twentieth century, a global race is on to devise the best kind of state and the best system of government. Compared to during that earlier era, the differences between the models competing today are far smaller — but the stakes are just as high. Whoever wins this contest to lead the fourth revolution in modern governance will stand a good chance of dominating the global economy. 

“Westerners have long assumed that the ideals of freedom and democracy would ultimately take root everywhere and that all countries that wanted to modernize would have to adopt such values,” they note. “But the rise of authoritarian modernization in Asia puts this in jeopardy. To remain stable and prosperous and to maintain their positions as global leaders, European countries and the United States will have to embrace the goal of smaller, more efficient government.”

“The state is the most precious of human possessions,” the economist Alfred Marshall remarked in 1919, toward the end of his life, “and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way,” note Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (Penguin Press, 2014).

But citizens and leaders in the democratic world have lost sight of the fact that government can change.

“Somewhat ironically, these days it’s China’s authoritarian rulers, and not their Western counterparts, who are more likely to understand Marshall’s insights into the preciousness and malleability of the state,” they write:

Chinese leaders study the great Western political theorists — Alexis de Tocqueville is a particular favorite — and their bureaucrats scour the world for the best ideas about governance. The Chinese, it seems, realize that government is the reason why the West has been so successful. Until the sixteenth century, China represented the most advanced civilization in the world; after that, the West pulled ahead, thanks in part to three (and a half) revolutions in government that leveraged the power of technology and the force of ideas. Now, a fourth revolution has begun, but it isn’t yet clear which countries will shape it and whether they will draw mostly from the ascendant tradition of Western liberal democracy or from newer forms of authoritarian rule that have emerged in recent decades. 

Innovation shifts east

China is the obvious focus of the debate over the future of governance, Micklethwait and Wooldridgeassert:

The Chinese have produced a new model of government that directly challenges the Western belief in free markets and democracy. China has pioneered a form of “state capitalism” by selling off thousands of smaller companies but keeping equity stakes in more than a hundred big companies. The country has also revived its ancient principle of meritocracy by recruiting Chinese Communist Party members from top universities and promoting party functionaries based on their ability to hit various targets, such as eradicating poverty and promoting economic growth.

“The twenty-first century is sure to be shaped by ever-fiercer competition between states to figure out which innovations in governing yield the best results,” they contend.

“The liberal democracies of the Western world still enjoy a significant leg up in terms of wealth and political stability. But it’s not yet clear whether the West will be able to summon the sort of intellectual and political energy that, for the past four centuries, has kept it ahead in the global race to reinvent the state.”

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Western democracy ‘losing its appeal’?

Western democracy is increasingly rigid and losing its appeal, claims a prominent Chinese analyst.

“Ever since the end of the cold war 25 years ago, the West has become stuck in a rut and turned a blind eye to issues that people care about,” according to Dong Likun, a professor at Shenzhen University, providing an insight into the ruling party’s ideological animosity to democracy:

Their democracy is about struggles between parties and canvassing for votes. Once a political party comes to power, it becomes indifferent to the real needs of the people. As a result, the general populace becomes less and less enthusiastic about politics. Elections become a tool for small groups fighting for power and their own interests.

The core value of democracy is to provide a basis of consensus so various interests groups of a society can co-exist in harmony. The West, however, only considers a government established through competition under the multiparty system to be a true democracy.

No doubt, there is a certain rationale behind multiparty competition, and they [sic] have played an important historic role. But with changing times, few people are in a position to form political parties and fight for state power. This system gradually excludes the majority from a country’s political life.

“Multiparty competition turns into fierce rivalry between different interest groups. The constant power struggles have become a common feature for both Western democracies and non-Western countries adopting a Western democratic system,” Dong writes for The South China Morning Post:

At present, there is much debate around the world about China’s current situation and her future. One important viewpoint is that China’s development has taken little account of public opinion and been realised through autocratic leadership, and will not be sustainable. Another belief is that China risks collapse if it doesn’t carry out political reforms.

This exaggerated “China threat” theory has blurred many people’s understanding of the country’s system. Whether they talk of collapse or threat, the purpose is to drive “democratisation” and implement Western democracy in China – and perhaps inspire a Chinese version of the Arab spring.

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