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"Xi Jinping should act as a benevolent emperor"

Prof. Klaus Segbers in an exchange about the situation in Hong Kong, China and democracy

News from Oct 20, 2014

The following exchange concerns the current situation in Hong Kong as well as a discussion about the nature and justification of protest as a feature of democracy. To protect the identity of the respondent (R) in Hong Kong, his or her name will not be published. The second person is Klaus Segbers (KS), Director of the Center for Global Politics (CGP) at FU Berlin.

Letter from R:

Thanks for writing and checking in. I am absolutely shocked that [the protest situation] turned out so bad in Hong Kong. I would never have imagined that the situation becomes such a big mess. […]

I don't think I have the same opinion as you. I am against this protest. I think I would get beaten up if I say it out loud. Honestly, it is really disruptive to the city! It is ruining Hong Kong! It is unbelievable how powerful social media is ... many people are pure followers without knowing what is happening. […]  Mainland China can easily rule Hong Kong as any other city in China. […] China is a very strict country – that we all know. But what China has been doing and how it has been helping Hong Kong, I think we can easily see. Not talking about monetary effect, imagine if China doesn't sell water to Hong Kong. Hong Kong would be screwed already! If China allows the change, all other cities in China would want the same.

I feel sorry for us because this protest is definitely damaging the city in many ways. […] All the main roads are closed! Restaurants have been closed because no delivery could be made there. All the connecting entrances between Queensway and Far East Finance Center, and between Queensway and Admiralty Centre were closed. Over 200 bus routes are cancelled around all affected areas. The whole traffic system in Hong Kong is dead, including the Admiralty, Central, Causeway, Wanchai and Mongkok. […]

Some rumors say all this has happened because of the US. I honestly doubt it, although it seems that people like to blame the US for whatever political problems [they are having]. Don't know why... […]

I hope that we won't become a shame to the world.


Letter from KS:

Thanks for your very enlightening, illuminating response. I do understand your reasoning and I understand the hassles accompanying the protests. Also, I agree that some of the protesters – as always – are running along for fun. Still - I feel that many protesters are genuinely looking for air and transparent democracy rules. Sooner or later, this will also spread to mainland China. I'm not sure if this is the right time. We'll see. Don't be too harsh with many young people feeling disappointed.


Letter from R:

I probably am too angry with the whole protest thing. I heard that news in foreign countries (US, UK, Germany, etc.) are praising those student protesters are heroes. […] Their [the protesters’] intention of having democracy may be justified, however they should also know how far we have come. […] I know that you may not agree with me, but I think this protest is a threat to the government. If the government doesn't do what the protesters ask for, they are damaging the city even more. […] The protesters think that the more disruptive it gets, the bigger threat it is to the government. They are silly enough not to think that the city belongs to them too! If the city is ruined, so are they! They could be a one-minute hero, but we [ordinary people] and the city will suffer.

The fact is that many people in Hong Kong, especially younger generations, want to be fed, while they don't want to work. They want mainlanders' money, but they don't want them to come. They want all their rights, but no responsibilities. They want good benefits like other countries, but don't want to pay as high tax as others. They want to do nothing, but get everything! It's totally contradictory and very selfish. […]

Concerning Singapore, I totally agree that Lee ruled Singapore very well. Singaporeans are more disciplined than people in Hong Kong. I bet some Singaporeans have disagreements with the government, but the Singapore government is doing well and is one of the best economy countries in the world! Singaporeans are disciplined because they are educated and trained, unlike Hongkongers. […] Mainland China is giving more and more, which not only helps our economy, but they [the government] have to be mindful what they do to Hong Kong will have an effect in other cities in China as well. Democracy works if the quality of the people is good enough to handle it. […]  There are 1.3 billion people in China, imagine if they also want a vote. If everyone has a voice, it's impossible for a government to listen to everyone. They listen and evaluate and act. […]

I personally think democracy is not necessarily good. […] My point is, democracy depends on the quality of the people. I am a voter, but I don't usually vote. I am so not into politics I don't even read their campaigns. I thought I rather not vote than making a wrong vote. Those students aren't even qualified voters! Even if they are, they may select Long Hair or stupid student activists. Can they do the job? Do they want that Hong Kong has no government?  Let them rule the world? Crazy...

Most of my colleagues are supporting this protest. Most of them are not even HK citizens! What do they care? They just want to have fun. I feel that lots of protesters just see this as a party or carnival. My assistant said she was going to the protest which is just outside of our office building. Another colleague asked her why. She said, "My friends asked me." My colleague asked, "So you don't have a stance on this?" My assistant said, "Well, if I don't have a stance, I would have gone days earlier." You can really see many of them just want to have fun!  […]

Sorry... I am not into politics, but this really irritates me! They claimed they are not harmful to just stand there. It's not true. Their presence is already doing something! I see no problem using tear gas, pepper spray, etc. I can totally see why the 64 Tiananmen Square protest happened!  […] If they don't stop without blood, let them have a taste! We have too many people in Hong Kong anyway! Sorry, I know probably you hate me for saying that. I just am too angry about this whole protest thing. They all want to be stars in the newspaper or on international news.


Letter from KS:

[There] are basically three things: first, all protests are also hassles for the less concerned. Every demonstration in Berlin blocks streets (on a much lower intensity, of course, than now in Central, Admiralty, Causeway etc.). This angers me often. But I have to remind myself: this is a core of democracy. People have the right for left or rightist issues, for causes I agree or disagree with, to take to the streets. Actually, their right to demonstrate starts where I start to disagree with them.

Second, yes, not all demonstrators are angels. Some people go there to have a good time, some for fun, and others for acting out of machismo. But still, a significant number goes there for raising issues and for defending rights, as they see them. That’s a given in democracies. And, frankly: I do not want other people, like bureaucrats, to decide for me which issues are good ones, and which are not. I don't like censorship; actually, I hate it. I consider myself mature enough to decide what I want to read, to see, to listen to, and do not delegate this right to anybody else.

Third, yes, democracy has evolved over time significantly. That’s why I criticize it publicly. There are a couple of reasons. One is that democracies perform worse under stress, and when there are a huge number of issues to be addressed and resolved […]. In addition, most people entitled to have a voice and a ballot do not really know the complexity of the issues at hand. Lastly, democracy coupled with electronic media and social networks often produces populist sentiments, conspiracy theories, and simplification.

Fourth, politicians are mostly interested in being reelected, as opposed to solving problems.

That’s how it is.

Now, let's turn to China. China is not a democracy, and does not pretend to be one. It is, to some extent, a meritocracy, i.e. people are promoted depending on their qualities and capabilities. On the other hand, they are promoted through belonging to certain networks of powerful people, or because of corruption. This system has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, and has modernized the country significantly. Also it has guaranteed that the country – after the havoc of the Cultural Revolution – did not fall back into anarchy, the anathema of the country.

At the same time, China also is facing huge problems which are not, or not yet, solved. Pollution is a big thing; so is demography (100 girls facing 120 boys). The hukou system, slightly reformed recently, is still not solving migration pressure. The links between the central level and the provincial and regional and local levels are not functional. The elites are mostly clueless as to how to act internationally – with restraint, or more assertively. The uncertainty puts the whole region (East and South China Seas) in turmoil.

The Hong Kong idea – one country, two systems – was always also the chance for the mainland to experiment with social and political innovation. […] Now China is in danger of losing this option. Antagonizing the island is quite risky, not only for the democracy movement in HK, but also for the Beijing-based elites.

There is one really productive way to solve the current havoc: when Xi Jinping finds the guts and acts as a benevolent emperor. When he is able to liberalize the Beijing offering for the next elections in HK, and does this convincingly, presenting this as a laboratory for selected other provinces to later follow along the same lines, this could be sold as a sign of wisdom and of strength.

What’s the alternative? A June 4th 2.0 would be a major disaster, not only for the people in HK, but also for mainland China, for its elites, and trade and political relations with the West […] No one believes that the current political setting can be preserved over ten more years, or even over five years. So change is imminent. There may be different faces of change. And chances are that the most probable face is not that with a Western mask on it. […] It is a disgrace to address the people in China as a herd of cattle following the whistles of a shepherd […]. Sorry for my lengthy response, please answer.


Letter from R:

The protests definitely irritate me and the public. […] While the protesters claim to fight for democracy or freedom, they are taking the freedom from the public. […] Maybe some of the intentions are good regarding fighting for democracy, but what they are doing is really affecting a lot of people’s lives. I don’t like censorship either, I bet no one likes it. It’s not like we have censorship now.

They fight for receiving a referendum. The government is giving them a referendum, but then they want to vet the nominees. Democracy only works if people are good quality people. They could easily select a gangster to be the Chief Executive. My friend from Scotland was scared to death when they had the referendum about potential independence from the UK. My friend is a scientist, but without being part of the UK, there is no chance her company would have funding to do any research. It may sound like a personal reason, but generally, from what I heard, Scotland being a separate country does not work, especially if they think they can rely on natural materials for the rest of the years. Here are some thoughts on your last points:

(1) They [the protesters] claim to conduct a peaceful protest. But simply blocking the roads without moving, is this peaceful? It is really not. Presence and silence (they are not silent, by the way) do not count as peaceful.

(2) Yes, everyone should have a voice. The protesters’ voice is heard. They do not need to continue to block the roads. They are basically threatening the government with the crowd by damaging all systems in Hong Kong. They occupy the main roads, no business around the area can perform as usual. No delivery can be made, including the bottled water suppliers which affect lots of tenants in town. The protesters ignore the damage they do to the city. Like one of the persons against the protest said, “Simply blocking the roads is not right.” No matter how justified their reasoning is.

(3) The social media is definitely “helping” this protest a lot. You may have heard that on Facebook, people are “unfriend”ing others if they are not in agreement with what the other person thinks. Social media definitely mobilizes more people to attend the protest. The news (especially foreign news) reported how civilized the protesters are because they are so organized, including, but not limited to, picking up their own rubbish. Throwing rubbish is already a crime which requires to be penalized HK$1,500. Since when do people pick up their own garbage get complimented? […] It is just ridiculous.

(4) I don’t know what politicians want. It does seem there are a lot of hidden agendas among all people. I don’t think China cares about what the protesters do to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is just a small part of China. Is China going to change a law because of the stupid protesters (about 15,000 people?) That’s not going to happen, especially with 13 billion people in China watching. If the protest worked, then all people in China would do the same. […]

Change needs time to develop. Things don’t change overnight! I truly support the policemen and government. If the government doesn’t follow the rules, we risk having a no-government city. Those so-called protesters who claim to be fighting for democracy/freedom should know what damage they have done to the city. Not only for the general public, but the international image to the world. […]


To be continued.

Photos: Pasu Au Yeung (4), Thierry Ehrmann (1), Jesse Clockwork (1). All photos derived from Flickr/ Creative Commons.

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