Obama speech, Trump, and true democracy

September 13, 2018 09:00
Former US President Barack Obama holds up a clipboard as he participates in a political rally for California Democratic candidates during an event in Anaheim, California, on Sept. 8. Photo: Reuters

We in Hong Kong like to talk a lot about democracy. But what exactly is democracy? The opposition insists it will only accept so-called genuine democracy. It loosely describes this as one person one vote without a selection process that effectively screens out candidates Beijing doesn't trust. But is that all there is to democracy or is there more?

Beijing doesn't want Hong Kong to copy Western-style democracy. It claims China has democracy, which it calls democracy with Chinese characteristics. Even people with a basic understanding of democracy will agree the Chinese version is not democracy in the true sense of the word. We know Beijing won’t allow Hong Kong democracy as defined by the opposition. And we know the opposition won’t accept democracy with Chinese characteristics.

Before we get into another rancorous tussle over political reforms, we should first educate ourselves on what exactly democracy means. It means more than just the right to vote. It means how we, as a society, should use our voting rights for the benefit of all.

Last week, I watched former president Barack Obama’s speech about the angry divide in current US politics. He had kept silent since leaving office, which is the tradition US presidents follow so as not to interfere with what their successors do. But he finally decided to speak up after seeing the country being torn apart by Donald Trump’s divide and rule governing style. He spoke forcefully not only about Trump but also about democracy.

Obama is such a gifted orator that his speeches always enthrall me. This was no different. Without exaggeration, I found it to be one of his finest speeches. It contained stinging criticism of Trump, whose name he mentioned for the first time in a political speech since leaving office. He said the US was facing dangerous times, warned against demagogues in American politics, and attacked Trump’s divisive rule. Many critics say Trump is a Hitler-like demagogue.

Obama also focused at length about democracy and how it’s supposed to work. Some of his words have a direct relevance for Hong Kong, which too is bitterly divided. That’s why I think Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her top ministers should watch the speech, which is available on the internet. So should the opposition, the establishment camp, the Beijing lobby, legislators, and our political parties. They can all learn something from the speech.

Obama stressed forcefully that common ground exists in democracy. But we in Hong Kong and our leaders in Beijing behave as if democracy allows no common ground. Beijing’s 2014 political reform framework for Hong Kong failed because both sides refused to find common ground. Beijing stuck to its framework and the opposition stuck to its demand for so-called true democracy.

Obama said democracy doesn’t make things perfect, it only makes things better. But those who fight for Hong Kong democracy seem to believe once we have democracy as defined by them, it will solve all of our problems and will act as a shield against Beijing meddling. Of course it won’t. At best, it will only remove some of the rancor in our politics.

Obama stressed that democracy doesn’t only mean it allows you to change the minds of others. He said democracy also means you should keep your own minds open to change by others. Wise words which we should all embrace. How often has the opposition succeeded in changing the minds of the government or Beijing? How often has Beijing or the government succeeded in changing the minds of the opposition? Hardly ever.

Obama’s speech has special relevance for China too although he did not mention the country at all. The relevance is not about democracy but the November mid-term elections. With Trump’s Republican Party now in control of both houses of Congress, he is facing very little pressure as he escalates his trade war with China. His hand will be further strengthened if the Republicans retain control of Congress during the November elections.

Beijing is no doubt hoping that Trump loses control of at least one house of Congress in the belief that this would weaken his hand in escalating the trade war. That is likely one reason why both sides are not negotiating seriously at this time. Trump recently said negotiations are unlikely to restart until after the elections. China has hinted the same thing.

Obama urged all Democrats to vote in November so the Democratic Party can have a shot at winning back at least one house of Congress. He repeated the same message the following day in California. But even if the Democrats succeed, it does not necessarily mean a winding down of the trade war or a quick agreement between the two sides.

Although the Democrats and Republicans have huge differences over almost every issue – from climate change and health care to illegal immigration – they are mostly united against the huge trade imbalance and other issues involving China, including Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea. In fact, the Democratic Party has been traditionally more hardline towards China on issues such as human rights, trade, and Tibet.

This means while Trump may face a lot of hurdles if Obama, who has now started campaigning for Democratic Party candidates, succeeds in rallying voters to win back at least one house of Congress, he will face less of a hurdle on issues involving China.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.