by Serge Berthier

"Democracy" is now a term confused and sophisticated by indiscriminate use. Asian Affairs in this issue looks at its use in two of the most peculiar places of the world, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Peculiar they are, because both of them are "Chinese". They are Chinese in essence because their population is primarily Chinese, their culture is Chinese and their history belongs to Chinese history. No matter how far the politicians and the opinion-makers diverge at a later point, they have to agree, first, that Taiwan and Hong Kong exist solely because they are part of China. This is not to deny their claims to a difference with the Mainland, or more importantly, with the current political system epitomized by the Beijing leadership. Yet, both seem not to understand exactly the consequences of their own raison d'être. One has been arguing for the past seven years that it should not be accountable to the central government in Beijing. In particular, it claims that it should elect its "mayor" as it sees fit. The second one is going one step further, it is trying to be something else: a non-Chinese entity. Both argue that their democratic rights are at stake. However, what is a democratic right?

To look at the use, or misuse, of democracy, we asked four academics and politicians to express their views on the latest elections in both places. To compare one election to the other is not without interest. One, in Hong Kong, clearly shows that it is quite easy to wipe out "democratic voices" by an institutional arrangement that gives authority only to those at the apex of the social hierarchy or their associates. The other election shows how difficult and dangerous it is to incorporate some kind of democratic values into what remains a highly centralized and unaccountable system. Both show in fact that the biggest enemy of democracy is mechanical efficiency. Elections may have no mind or real purpose of their own, they produce results that alter the fate of many, erasing slowly and relentlessly any kind of degree of autonomy, selectivity and creativity of individuals taking actually no part in the process.

As I was analyzing the contradictions of those elections that the readers will discover in this issue came the news that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, was resigning, officially for "health reasons", unofficially for lack of popular support two years in his second term.

The resignation was a protracted affair. It dragged on for more than two weeks, with the Chief Executive remaining coy about the rumors until he got the green light from Beijing to announce it officially.

The handling of the whole episode was more reveling than the fact itself. The Chief Executive did not consider for one minute that he should inform first the Hong Kong population on the matter. He was right and wrong. Right, because his mandate was not a popular one. He was an appointed executive, and his position was the same as any previous "governor" of the ex-colony. The day his masters in Beijing (instead of London) got impatient, he was shown the door. Wrong, because he was the leader of Hong Kong and Hong Kong is made of people to whom he was morally answerable.

However, politics and moral standards don't get well together.

Tung Chee-hwa was indeed a blundering political leader. Landed the job because he was born into a family China could trust at a time where the United Kingdom's government was unified behind the last governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, a champion of democracy, he had no training for the position and no administrative experience whatsoever.

But whatever his failings, Tung Chee-hwa succeeded in what mattered most for the charade of Hong Kong to continue, which was to transform its transfer of sovereignty in a simple administrative paper-work. However, having successfully kept Hong Kong in the colonial mindset that is said to be its recipe for success, he quickly became a liability when it became obvious that the population was no longer prepared to remain the subjects of a colonial oligarchy they inherited in 1997.

Although the process had little to do with our usual democratic ways, the departure of Tung Chee-hwa, as messy as it was, was the triumph of direct democracy. What elections could not achieve, popular mood did. We have to acknowledge that the Beijing leadership got the message and acted upon it.

Of course, elections seem to be to a Westerner a more pertinent way to judge the public mood. However, on a scrutiny, it is not for certain that they are more efficient.

Lewis Mumford, an American political thinker, remarks that, since the Neolithic times two technologies of empowerment have been competing: "one authoritarian, the other democratic. The first system-centered is immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."

And today, we have a problem. "Unless we radically alter our present course, says Lewis Mumford, our surviving democratic technics will be completely suppressed or supplanted, so that every residual autonomy will be wiped out, or will be permitted only as a playful device of government, like national balloting for already chosen leaders in totalitarian countries".

Jacques Derida, the French philosopher is even more blunt when talking about the state of our democracy. "Progress in arms-technologies and media-technologies, he said in an interview, is incontestably causing the disappearance of the pillars upon which the democratic model used to rest. The notion of politics dependent on the relation between power and space is over, although its end must be negotiated with".

One consequence, according to Derida, is that the determination or behaviour of each citizen or singularity, can no longer in theory in this new global world depend on the decisions of a specific group of citizens, a nation or even of a continent.

What Derida points out is that in our so-called "democratic" order, all decisions made in the name of "Human Rights" are purely alibis for the continued inequality between singularities, and that we need to invent other concepts than state, superstate, citizen, and so forth for this new democracy to come. Comes then the question of the governing technics of this new democratic society.

The media-technologies Derida alludes to are already there. For example, quite recently, the New York Times revealed that a number of news and TV clips, presented as news in the American media, were actually propaganda tailored made by some obscure government bureau accountable to the FBI and the CIA. This is chilling news for the line between facts and truths is becoming nearly invisible. Aldous Huxley, in his Brave New World novel, was warning us it would come. Today it is there.

The new configuration of technical inventions surrounding the democratic process has yet to be understood by the people for what it is: a system that deliberately eliminates the whole human personality and makes control over man himself, its chief purpose. In that context, one may ask if elections are the best method to stop that process. If not, then democracy as we see it, with a retinue of elections to justify it, does not achieve its purpose for it endangers further our individual choices.

To look at another angle of the democratic concept, we propose to the reader a quick analysis of the power structure in a country with no election at all: Myanmar. Here the centralized power structure is quite similar to that of an absolute ruler, whose words are law. Yet, there is no king but two groups mobilizing and unifying millions of people who otherwise would be too autonomous or too decentralized to act voluntarily in unison for purposes laying beyond their village horizon.

Ironically, this overtly brutal and half-baked authoritarian system exists solely because it is unable to achieve a hold over the whole community. If it were, it would probably relinquish its current form and evolve towards another kind of centralized system that would ask the community to surrender its chaotic way of life. Would such a bargain be beneficial to the individual, the Karens, the Mons, other indigenous clans as well as the myriad of monks cluttering every village of the country? This is exactly the question the Tibetans were facing more than fifty years ago and to whom the West was replying "no". Tibet should remain Tibet. Obviously, the social contract between a power and its society is by essence a matter of opinion.

There is no denying that to surrender to Western democratic means would probably improve greatly the life of some. Yet, is it time to reckon the human disadvantages and costs of our unqualified acceptance of a system that produces war with the appalling regularity of a cuckoo clock and is bringing Taiwan closer to war than peace every day, thanks to its electoral performance.

It is also thanks to elections that we are entering every day a more dangerous world, as the reader will discover in the last paper of this issue. A new arms race is shaping up on the ruins of many international agreements as explains Harsh V. Pant.

Of course, not everything is negative. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, it took many years for people to oppose the Vietnam War, while the Iraqi war was denounced even before it started. However, two years later, the voices of the people have yet to make any impact on their governments to stop the carnage and prevent a new one emerging elsewhere (Lebanon, Iran?), for the system leading us has yet to be democratically dismantled to give way to something where every member of society has a real share in its goods.

Serge Berthier