by Serge Berthier

A priori, India and Hong Kong have little in common. Their size, their wealth, their society are at the opposite of the spectrum. An average Hong Kong citizen is said, according to the Gross domestic Product benchmark, to be at least 56 times better off than an average Indian: USD22,000 against USD390. Therefore it was unlikely that both the Hong Kong citizen and the Indian citizen would share common problems.

Yet, after a closer look at the many problems and failures of the Indian society and its system of governance which explains that such a large country is every hour increasing its absolute number of destitute faster than it is improving the lot of the others, it is obvious that the sins of misgovernance we can see in Hong Kong have an Indian flavor.

How could this be and what are the sins? Both India and Hong Kong claim to be democratic, by birth, so to speak. But as Tsang Yok Sing, the leader of a political party in Hong Kong says, to declare that Hong Kong was democratic because the United Kingdom had a parliamentary system, was nonsense. And to declare that India is the largest democracy in the world, by which Indians imply it is the best, is also nonsense.

Suffice to look at their civil society. Both are divided in innumerable segments as a result of a lack of civil law system. It is not innocuous that civil law systems are markedly more international in character than are common law systems; it is because it requires codification along universal principles.

But what are those universal principles that push India to have thousands of castes and sub-castes or Hong Kong, a quite recent society by any standard to be already deeply divided? On what universal ground can the Hong Kong government possibly tolerate that, by birth, few indigenous people control a large chunk of the New Territories? And why is it that in both places, every decision that is in the common interest ends up being challenged in court by a segment of the society that does not want to lose its privilege? That are the questions that we try to solve by asking various members of the elite of India and a leading Hong Kong politician.

When looking at problems of bad governance, the easy answer, and it is a cliche that is mentioned more than once in this issue, is that democracy is the best form of governance so far. But the debate is not about democracy, it is about the requirements of democracy. Ronnie Chan, a leading figure in Hong Kong, was calling the Indian democracy a dictatorship by consensus. But what consensus? It is doubtful that the Indians are having any kind of consensus on any subject, whether it is on religious issues, or ethnic issues, or economic issues.

The bewildering diversity of the Indian society led to a bewildering number of political parties and ideologies and the politics of coalition is clearly an inevitable feature. But to be inevitable does not mean that it is good or bad. It is just a necessary feature of the system in its present setup.

Governance means today managing the affairs of the nation in such a way that the population can expect to improve its quality of life and that of the future generation. But there it seems there is a confusion. For some, and that is the case both in India and Hong Kong, it means actually managing the affairs of the people to deliver to them various entitlements which are supposed to keep them contented. The problem is: who decides what the entitlements are?

In India, the Prime Minister, in an electoral rally, promised that he would deliver schools and that they would be a gift from the government to the people. In Hong Kong, it is pretty much the same philosophy, the difference being that it is the bureaucracy that considers it is a gift if a road is built in a remote location such as the Lantau island, the biggest island of the SAR, where no infrastructure have been developed during forty years - that is until a new airport was needed. It is also the bureaucracy that is telling the population that they have to be satisfied with part-time schooling for the past 145 years.

The very logic of democracy is that governments should reflect the aspirations of the people. But such aspirations create many complex problems that the ruling classes are able to manipulate in their favor.

The first requirement for the system to work is a well informed public opinion. People should not only be literate but also able to understand the problems of their society. In other words, not to be abused, they should be educated and vigilant. But it is a difficult task, especially when the society is, to start with, divided and fragmented, in other words, feudalistic in essence.

To modernize a society is difficult. Some think only money matters, but Korea is a good example that money does not buy modern minds. Others, today, believe that internet is the answer. But telephone, TV and other electronic devices did not improve the literacy rate of any country. In fact, studies in the United States show that the level of comprehension is going down, not up. People can hardly read and write, much less understand the meaning behind printed words.

The rule of laws has been bandied a lot, especially in Hong Kong to justify, before 1997, a given order: the colonial one. In India too, the rule of laws is bandied a lot for precisely the same reason. How can a system evolved within a set of rules designed to keep it as it is. What if the order in question has little to do with equality in the first place?

The media, the business elite and the academics are everywhere harping about the incompetence of the politicians. India and Hong Kong are no exception. But the bad governance is not necessarily due to the politicians themselves. Surely there are incompetent politicians, and incompetent governments, but when every government is incompetent, when every politician is incompetent, when things are getting more complicated rather than easier to solve, then obviously the politician is not so much the culprit as we think.

Bad governance is more often a case of institutional misuse for what other means have the politicians to deliver what the people want than the institutions and the civil service?

There is little doubt that both India and Hong Kong have a bad case of bureaucratic fever and, central to the problem, that their bureaucracies are both vested with the post-colonial rights of the privileged segments of society.

Both places, too, suffer from delusion. India feels that it is, by sheer size, important, and that it will become one of the main actors of the world in the next twenty years. Hong Kong feels that it is a city that matters for others, a world city, whatever that means.

It is very doubtful that India will be anything else but India in the future. The fact that it is nuclear will not solve its problems and it is wishful thinking to hope that a collapse of Pakistan would help India to pacify its restive Muslim community. If anything, it would make a bad situation worse.

As for Hong Kong, it is important to China, but not as important as Hong Kong people think. China would survive Hong Kong's collapse, but Hong Kong would not survive China's.

Why do they suffer from delusion? No doubt, because it scares the weaker sections of the society into submission and therefore promotes in an unscrupulous way the interest of the bureaucrats and the vested elites who are the main beneficiary of the status-quo.

Yet, it is obvious that at a time where we think of sustainable developments of one sort of another, both situations are unsustainable. Sooner or later, something is bound to happen. Can India live with more destitute? At what numbers, when and where communal violence will be endemic? Can the society remain breaking down in ever smaller segments? As for Hong Kong, for how long can the city sustain and tolerate 189,000 entrenched and pampered privileged civil servants without losing further impetus. Can that segment of the population absorb as much as 70% of an ever-growing budget without denting badly the comparative advantage Hong Kong has towards its Chinese and foreign competitors?

Serge Berthier