Hong Kong lawmaker seeks ‘democracy within China’s embrace’

china reginma i- 2Former colonial official and now pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip is one of the few establishment figures seeking to meet with leaders of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement to find a way to end the protests that have caught the world’s attention, Michael Forstythe reports for the New York Times.

More than a decade ago, as Hong Kong’s top security official, she led the government’s push to pass a law on subversion and treason, despite widespread concern that it would erode the city’s civil liberties, he writes:

She was also hobbled by her public statements, at one point remarking that democracy helped Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s and led to the subsequent Holocaust, and that it was not “a panacea for all problems.” She later said she regretted making that comparison, but maintained.

It was an unusual remark coming from someone who in the 1980s as a civil servant under the British helped set up some of Hong Kong’s first democratic institutions — elections for local councils. She then went to Stanford University and took a seminar on democracy taught by two prominent scholars on the subject, Seymour Martin Lipset and Larry Diamond [the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and the co-chair of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy.]

And after her resignation in 2003 she went to Stanford again, that time to study under Mr. Diamond for a master’s degree. Her thesis was on how to build democracy in Hong Kong.

“She came here very burned and kind of wanting to withdraw and contemplate, and kind of recovered some political creativity and energy,” Mr. Diamond said in an interview. “And as a result of her thinking, began to develop what she thought was some kind of middle way or independent path that could navigate this difficult contradiction between hopes for greater popular sovereignty in Hong Kong and a pace and level of reform that Beijing could be comfortable with.”

In her master’s thesis, Ms. Ip argued for a stronger political party system in Hong Kong and a chief executive, much like in the United States, who was also a party leader, giving him or her more authority, Forsythe adds:

She viewed democracy as more of a tool than anything — a mechanism to help Hong Kong’s leader govern more effectively. She concluded in the thesis that “if this opportunity is seized to good effect, the spinoffs for the future democratization of China are immeasurable.”

Now, though, she makes it clear that democracy has to be more than something nice to have in principle — it has to deliver. “While I fully support and understand the normative justifications for a democratic system, having seen Hong Kong’s democratic transformation, the big question in my mind is in what way more democracy added value,” Ms. Ip said in the interview.

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Freedom’s uneasy condition

FREEDOM FHIn recent commentaries on the bleak state of global freedom, analysts have used a series of labels to describe the trajectory of democracy: “stagnation,” “erosion,” “recession,” and even “decline” for those who view the trends with alarm, notes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House. One label that has not been applied to current conditions is “reversal.”

This is worth noting. In his influential study of the democracy revolution of the late 20th century, The Third Wave, Samuel Huntington devoted considerable space to the reversals in political freedom that came on the heels of the first and second waves of democratization, he writes for the Freedom at Issue blog.

The sense of backsliding is increasingly palpable, leading many to ask, like the Economist, what’s gone wrong with democracy? A complete list of disheartening phenomena over the past several years would be a long one, but here are a few:

  • The lack of major breakthroughs: Aside from Tunisia, the Arab Spring has met with a grim fate across the Middle East, with antidemocratic forces dragging the region even deeper into repression and violence. Other persistent blocs of Not Free countries, covering much of Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia, remain overwhelmingly authoritarian, despite significant ferment on their margins.
  • Worsening conditions in major authoritarian states: In 2000, many anticipated change for the better in China. Instead, political freedom remains a remote prospect, and civil liberties have been further curtailed. Russia was ranked as Partly Free in 2000; it is now firmly in the Not Free category. Nor have things improved in Iran, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, and the situation has gone from bad to worse in Venezuela.
  • Strutting dictators: Where previously a country’s democracy deficit would elicit apologies and pledges to institute reforms, today’s autocratic leaders, led by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, categorically reject democratic values and speak with disdain of Euro-American gridlock and decadence.
  • The economic factor: The democratic sphere’s clear superiority in growth, prosperity, and technological modernization played a huge role in discrediting both communism and military dictatorship during the late 20th century. While developed democracies remain atop the roster of prosperous countries, the economic crisis that began in 2008 has shaken their peoples’ confidence and—coupled with a continued boom in China—changed the calculation in many developing societies.

The current situation can be viewed in two ways. It is not as bad as it may seem, in the sense that the great gains of previous decades have not in fact been erased. But it could be a sign of things to come, the cusp of a major reversal. To prevent a negative outcome in matters of such consequence, it is always best to prepare for the worst.

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The virtues of modesty: work with the grain to develop democracy

dem asstce levy grainNeither modestly incremental ‘good governance’ nor transformational transition programs are effective at building sustainable democratic institutions, says Johns Hopkins University’s Brian Levy.

As part of a leadership team within the World Bank tasked with integrating governance into development strategy. I participated in forging the good governance consensus. But I’m now convinced that it is wrong, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

I’ve come to realize that it completely underestimates how much time and commitment are needed to transform a country’s institutions. As my new book argues, we need to shift our attention away from trying to achieve everything at once and focus instead on gains that can initially seem quite modest — but which, if pursued persistently, can sometimes.

Here is what makes efforts at far-reaching institutional reform in nascent democracies so unlikely to succeed. Many emerging democracies depend for their stability on complex personal alliances and compromises. Rival factions may agree to use an election to decide who gets to govern — but beyond that they’re generally unwilling or unable to commit to formal rules for either the economic or political game. Instead, as Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North has underscored in his recent work, what really holds things together are deals on how to share the spoils of power. Sometimes insiders can be wholly predatory. But at other times, personalized arrangements can provide just enough stability to push economic development forward and to strengthen democratic institutions.

Economically, an approach that goes “with the grain” offers three key lessons on how we might engage differently, Levy contends:

First, do no harm. The experience of Bangladesh offers an excellent example of the advantages of caution. In both 2001 and 2005, Transparency International rated Bangladesh as the world’s most corrupt country. Even so, since its transition to democracy in the early 1990s, its economy has grown at a rate of 6 percent annually, while the child mortality rate has fallen by two-thirds, from 151 per thousand in 1990 to 52 per thousand by 2009. Far-reaching institutional reforms — such as high-profile campaigns against corruption — might have destabilized the (ethically ambiguous) institutional arrangements that have made these achievements possible, potentially doing more harm than good….

Second, practitioners should focus on achieving concrete results via “islands of effectiveness” rather than on across-the-board overhauls. Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. In such situations, reformers have a better chance of doing good by nurturing zones of economic dynamism rather than endlessly (and fruitlessly) pushing for a “level playing field.” ….

Third, don’t overreach. One form of overreaching is to over-promise — suggesting, for example, that newly democratizing countries can quickly create market-supporting institutional arrangements that usually take decades to build. A similar error is to insist that all good things come by traveling the democratic path — and only along that path. The evident success of East Asian autocracies — from South Korea’s quarter-century of strong, inclusive growth under military rule to China’s historically unprecedented success in lifting close to a billion people out of poverty in just a few decades — make a powerful counter-argument to this simplistic view.

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Afghanistan: failed transformation, death of democracy or hope for reform?

2015 is supposed to mark the start of Afghanistan’s “Transformation Decade,” notes a prominent analyst. But if the country is to even get to 2015 in one piece, its new leaders must act fast to correct course after the failed transformation of the last decade, Ahmed Rashid writes for the New York Times:

On Sunday, after months of bitter wrangling, the two leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election agreed to form a national unity government. Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun technocrat, is to be president, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister of mixed Tajik and Pashtun descent, is to be chief executive, a newly created post akin to prime minister. …The four-page joint agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah calls for convening a loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal representatives and elected district councilors, in the next two years in order to amend the Constitution to reflect the recent creation of the chief executive post.

But a loya jirga should be called as soon as possible, so as to promptly give constitutional cover to the power-sharing agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah. The assembly should also discuss how the present presidential system, which is highly centralized, could be improved and how electoral reforms can be made to prevent future vote-rigging. And the gathering should be convened before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year: This would allow the legislators who are elected then to have some of the legitimacy that is lacking at present.

NY Times

NY Times

“Death of democracy” is the phrase that has gone viral on social media among young Afghans since the September 21 announcement of a deal between the country’s two presidential election rivals, according to Afghan analyst Helena Malikyar:

Afghans celebrated the end of a deadlock that had plagued their country’s April 5 presidential elections because of the tremendous adverse effects that the impasse had brought onto the nation’s economy, security, and the function of the entire state apparatus.

However, the political deal that entails the formation of a “government of national unity” by rival presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, is widely seen as a setback in the country’s process of democratisation. By brushing aside people’s votes, the political elite’s deal has disenchanted ordinary citizens and has shaken their confidence in the democratic process

Appointments will be key to everything, both in terms of how power is split and wielded and what sort of government Afghanistan is to get, Kate Clark writes for the Afghanistan Analysts Network:

The deal keeps repeating that appointments will be on merit, but that is something that has proved very difficult up until now. In Afghanistan, positions are often considered as ‘spoils’ and a means of rewarding supporters; patronage underpins power and authority. What has enabled the government so far to nevertheless survive has been the large inflows of foreign capital and foreign military support, but both are already tailing off. A united government will already have difficulty coping with all the problems Afghanistan faces. A weak and contested administration could well find those problems overwhelming.

Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

But the National Democratic Institute (NDI)* welcomed the conclusion of the 2014 presidential electoral process and the political agreement that enables the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.

“The establishment of the national unity government provides a critical framework for political leaders to work in tandem to address the country’s political, economic and security challenges,” the group said, and it also commended the new government’s plan to form a special commission on electoral reform:

The commission should examine the root causes of serious flaws in the electoral process and offer recommendations for reforms that, if adopted, could promote Afghan confidence in the country’s electoral and political institutions. Such reforms could include constitutional, legislative, operational and institutional aspects as well as accountability mechanisms. Political will must be exercised and adequate resources allocated to implement such reforms. 

The Middle East Institute’s Louis R. Hughes Lecture Series this week hosted a panel discussion exploring the role of democratic governance in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (above). Have the conditions been right within these countries for democracy to take root? Has it been given a fair chance to succeed? Should it be held to different standards than democracy in the West? Experts Hassan Abbas (National Defense University), Sarah Chayes (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Joshua White (Stimson Center), and Moeed Yusuf (United States Institute for Peace) consider these questions, as well as whether future reforms could improve the efficacy of the existing governments in both countries.

* NDI’s election assessment mission fielded 100 Afghan staff observers in 26 provinces for the April first round elections and the June presidential runoff. The Institute mobilized 25 international and 25 Afghan observers to monitor the presidential runoff audit. The NDI mission was informed by a pre-election assessment the Institute conducted in December 2013. NDI supported the efforts of multiple domestic monitoring groups that mobilized thousands of citizen monitors for the two elections and the comprehensive audit. The Institute will issue a final report on the 2014 elections, including recommendations to strengthen the electoral process, in the near future.  

Democracy the ultimate solution to China’s problems

china cpcongress clbDemocracy is the ultimate solution to many of Beijing’s problems, argues Zheng Wang, the Director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The recent trouble in Hong Kong regarding the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive provides a good opportunity for the leadership in Beijing to reevaluate its policy towards political reform and democracy, he writes for The Diplomat:

Beyond internal change, democracy could also be a solution to some of China’s foreign policy troubles. One major problem is China’s neighbors do not trust Beijing and harbor deep suspicion towards China’s intentions and foreign policy aims. The smaller nations in East and Southeast Asia find it difficult to deal with a rising giant that has a major lack of transparency in both its policy making and the operation of the government.

There have been discussions in China about whether Xi should be China’s new Mao or “second Deng”; “China’s Putin” or the Chinese version of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Wang notes:

But the best role model Xi can take is that of Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-kuo. In the late 1970s, when the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government was still very powerful and possessed many political resources, Chiang made the brave and visionary move to start political reform. He removed restrictions on the formation of political parties, and endorsed freedom of the press. This process is known as Taiwan’s “quiet revolution,” a non-violent movement that transformed Taiwan from a dictatorship to a democracy.

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A New Era of U.S.-China Relations? House Foreign Affairs Committee Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee September 17