Hong Kong needs consultative democracy to build social consensus

The people of Hong Kong have complained about the lack of electoral democracy in the latest Legislative Council (LegCo) elections. However, young Hong Kong commentator He Tsz Yuk is of the view that apart from electoral democracy, consultative democracy is what Hong Kong needs even more, in order to achieve true democracy including a participatory public and a broad representation of views.
Pedestrians along a road in Hong Kong, China, on 15 February 2022. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians along a road in Hong Kong, China, on 15 February 2022. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

With Hong Kong’s latest Legislative Council (LegCo) elections held in December 2021, the authorities believe they have moved one step further towards having Hong Kong governed by “patriots”, and that the elections were a successful exercise in Hong Kong’s democratic spirit. However, the foreign ministers of the Five Eyes alliance think that the reduced number of directly elected seats has led to an “erosion of democratic elements” in Hong Kong’s electoral system.

Some foreign media outlets such as Australia’s public broadcaster SBS have quoted Associate Professor Kenneth Chan of Hong Kong Baptist University saying that the voter turnout of about 30% was "hugely embarrassing" for the government, and an expression of the unhappiness of pro-democracy voters at the election.                                                            

Going by these comments, some are using the lack of electoral democracy in this seventh-term LegCo as the main evidence to attack democracy at large in Hong Kong. This shows that their understanding of democracy is one-dimensional, as they feel that electoral democracy is the whole of democracy, which is a very narrow view.

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This overhead view shows Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam (top left) speaking to Legislative Council (LegCo) members during the first session of a new "patriots only" legislature in Hong Kong on 12 January 2022. (Peter Parks/AFP)

Democracy is not just about going to the ballot box

First, electoral democracy is just one form of democracy, and not the whole of it, nor is it the key to solving all of society’s problems. David Van Reybrouck, an advocate of participatory democracy, wrote in an essay in 2016: “Both Brexit and Trump painfully illustrate the dangerous road that all western democracies have taken: reducing democracy to the act of voting.”

... when MTR trainee mechanic Chan Tsz-wai was elected, it was seen as David’s victory over Goliath. But he was quickly criticised...

Hong Kong’s 2019 district council elections is the best proof of this dangerous path. The district council elections are Hong Kong’s grassroots elections, and has always been seen as a local consultative framework focusing on “getting things done”. Bread and butter issues loom largest on voters’ minds, and so most of those previously elected have applied themselves to grassroots work full-time or in the long term.

But this round, according to a study by the Hong Kong Research Association, the reason given by the largest proportion of voters for their vote was because they “object to the political stand of a particular political group or camp”.

So, when MTR trainee mechanic Chan Tsz-wai was elected, it was seen as David’s victory over Goliath. But he was quickly criticised for being disconnected and neglectful of his duties, and in the end, stopped serving the community because he was unable to raise funds. This shows that there are huge limitations in electoral democracy in bringing out the meaning of democracy, and just taking a political stand might not mean one can solve social problems.

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Chan Tsz-wai's candidate form (above) was in sharp contrast to his opponent's. (Internet)

Second, apart from elections, there is also consultative democracy. In their work “What Democracy Is… and Is Not”, Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry L. Karl — authorities in comparative politics — note that there is no set form of democracy, but in various parts of the world and in various democratic bodies, given all their diversity, in practice they all pursue the same results, including a highly participatory public, broadly representative spokespersons, and good negotiations and cooperation.

... consultative democracy is relatively less developed in Hong Kong, where public consultation and participation is not seeing a good response.

The merits of consultative democracy

Compared to electoral democracy, consultative democracy is more likely to lead to the three aims above. As stated in the white paper “Hong Kong: Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems”: “For democracy to develop in Hong Kong, measures should be taken to improve the electoral system, and more forms of democracy — consultation, inquiry, hearing and dialogue — should be tested, to open up more channels for democracy of quality and substance.”

However, consultative democracy is relatively less developed in Hong Kong, where public consultation and participation is not seeing a good response. Government officials and LegCo members should play a key role in bringing about constant democratic consultation, to build consensus and come up with concrete policy suggestions, so as to increase the people’s sense of political effectiveness.

What examples are there of successful consultative democracy? The “micro-consultations” in mainland China have helped to resolve many difficulties for the people. For instance, Ji Ying — Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member for Xintian county, Hunan province — raised the idea of simplifying the process of medical claims for chronic illnesses. Subsequently, the provincial Healthcare Security Administration simplified the process of buying medicine for certain outpatient treatments. Now, if these outpatients require hospitalisation, they could defer the use of their outpatient discounts on specialist medicines until the next month, and check into the hospitals first without having to do refunds or returns, which is a great convenience for patients.

... those elected in the district elections under the functional constituencies should work with the community and businesses to come up with platforms (similar to those in mainland China) for consultations...

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Legislative Council candidates shake hands at a street booth ahead of the 19 December 2021 election in Hong Kong on 16 December 2021. (Bertha Wang/AFP)

Currently, the 1500-member Election Committee in Hong Kong selects 40 out of 90 lawmakers taking up seats in the Legco. These candidates would need to look beyond serving the needs of the election committee members, and to build a relationship with the Hong Kong people in order to truly serve them.

A more meaningful discussion in terms of consultative democracy would be how those elected in the district elections under the functional constituencies should work with the community and businesses to come up with platforms (similar to those in mainland China) for consultations among public organisations, grassroots, and civic groups, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of these platforms.

As Hillary Clinton said in Democracy Journal: “After all, democracy is an act — one that doesn’t end on Election Day.” If we are to truly implement good democracy, negotiations and consultations are the key.

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