Hong Kong is not looking for Western-style democracy, because there’s no such thing as “Western-style democracy”

Student protesters sit with signs on their fight for democracy in Hong Kong Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.
Student protesters sit with signs on their fight for democracy in Hong Kong Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014.

Wong Maye-E / CP

The Chinese government, taking a well-deserved break from its exhausting pick-pocketing spree of Pacific islands, has  turned to defending its own right to sovereignty: the right, that is, to act like a jerk in the privacy of its own country without suffering the indignity of other countries accusing it of acting like a jerk.

As people outside China’s borders observe the demonstrations rising within them, China is forced to argue with many parts of the world about many things that it thinks it shouldn’t have to talk about at all. Things like whether Hong Kong police are entitled to tear-gas peaceful protesters, and whether those protesters and other citizens are entitled to choose their representatives. But for all their disagreements, Beijing and its sovereignty-hating critics tend to agree on this: the protesters of Hong Kong seek a very particular type of democracy, and it can be called Western-style democracy.

Beijing’s critics agree to this even though “Western-style democracy” sounds like a cheap piece of furniture featured in Pottery Barn’s fall catalogue, as if demonstrators want to buy a Moroccan-style lantern assembled in a Germany factory, or a Louis XIV-style chair constructed entirely of fibreglass. Western-style democracy isn’t a real thing. It’s a tacky imitation of a vague idea of a thing.

But beyond the fact that Western-style democracy has all the historical, geographical and philosophical authenticity of a mid-century modern dining table from Atlantis, Beijing’s critics have to stop implying that Western democracies are the standard by which protesters measure their political goals for two other reasons: it strengthens Beijing’s position and it weakens Hong Kong’s aspirations.

Communist officials have recently ratcheted up rhetoric about Chinese patriotism, equating love of party with love of country, while sometimes referring to “Chinese-style” socialist democracy. That’s why the pro-PartyGlobal Times specifies that protesters “should stop fantasizing about American-style democracy” rather than straight-up democracy. (American-style democracy being the loud-mouthed younger brother in the Western-style democracy family). The idea of Western-style democracy legitimizes the CCP’s argument that there is no universal democratic value: there are only different democratic versions, and Beijing’s democratic version is more China-appropriate than that of the sovereignty-haters. So when Western observers claim — brag, really — that Hong Kong is marching west, they’re making that march longer and harder.

But the suggestion that demonstrators merely want to imitate Western democracies also insults the depth of their vision.

The people of Hong Kong aren’t fighting for what we have. They’re fighting for what everyone deserves to have: rule by the people through a government that protects every person’s basic rights. Students aren’t braving downpours of rain and pepper spray to demand an open nomination process for elections so they can elect representatives who replicate the way that the Canadian government evaded accountability so unabashedly last month that an Opposition critic face-palmed on national television. Protesters aren’t broadcasting pictures of umbrellas soaring and tent cities rising so they can inspire their government to out-pace the American government in its paranoid pursuit of all-surveillance-all-the-time. Store-owners aren’t handing out care packages to demonstrators at the mall, and business people aren’t marching with demonstrators after work, to show solidarity with whatever part of the West’s top one per cent keeps its money in Swiss banks.

“We want real democracy!” cried one protester over a speaker system. As do we all.

And if the people of Hong Kong want a fully accountable, transparent and equal democracy, then they want even more than what the people of many Western democracies have been given.    

Shannon Gormley is a Canadian journalist.

 

 

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