Drawing Lessons from SARS in Hong Kong: We Are Ready for Democracy
Raj Kumar (Lecturer, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong) and
Richard Cullen (Professor, Monash University, Australia)
(This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
We are learning many lessons from the Sars crisis. It is clear, for example, that major improvements are needed in the management of serious public health risks in Hong Kong. The crisis is also, within a remarkably compressed time frame, markedly extending our understanding of Hong Kong's political reality. And we are gaining a fresh perspective on its potential for future political development.
Sars hit Hong Kong and the mainland at almost the same time. Consider the differing approaches to dealing with the crisis. On the mainland, the initial response was characterised by cover-ups and denials. Many have criticised Hong Kong's handling of the crisis, but there has been an unencumbered flow of information, accompanied by an ongoing, full-bodied discussion of the implications.
Even more telling, perhaps, is the way Hong Kong has been able to remain thoroughly focused on managing the daily consequences of Sars, while debating the immediate and broader issues. This is enlightening. It says that, when put to a severe test, civil society in Hong Kong has demonstrated real political maturity. Yes, we have argued, but we have not seriously fallen upon one another over Sars, as seems to have happened to a degree in Taiwan.
The crisis has demonstrated more clearly than ever that civil society in Hong Kong, blemishes notwithstanding, is surprisingly mature, tolerant and flexible. This realisation puts a new light on the prospects for democratisation beyond 2007. It tells us that democratisation in Hong Kong is about forming a political structure which reflects the achievements and aspirations of a city ready to move well beyond the dabbling which has gone on so far.
The legal and constitutional commitments for providing democracy are set out in both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law. The Basic Law states that full democracy could be embraced by 2007. The United Nations Development Programme chose the theme: "Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World" for its 2002 Human Development report. It argues that for politics and political institutions to promote human development and safeguard the freedom and dignity of all people, democracy must widen and deepen. While it seems like an obvious statement, it has profound implications for the way policies are formulated and implemented in Hong Kong and, indeed, in many other parts of the world.
Further, the report notes correctly that the democracy which a nation or society chooses to develop depends on its history and circumstances and, hence, countries will necessarily be "differently democratic". This observation has significant relevance for Hong Kong, which can choose a democratic model to fit its special circumstances.
The report argues that a central challenge for the deepening of democracy is building the key institutions of democratic governance, which, in its view, are: a system of representation, with well-functioning political parties and associations; an electoral system that guarantees free and fair elections and universal suffrage; a system of checks and balances based on the separation of powers, with independent judicial and legislative branches; a vibrant civil society, able to monitor government and private business - and provide alternative forms of political participation; a free and independent media; and an effective civilian control over the military and other security forces.
In 1995, the Inter-Parliamentary Union assembled experts from various regions and disciplines to develop an international standard on democracy. Building on this work, the Universal Declaration on Democracy was adopted in 1997. The declaration recognises that democracy is based on two core principles: participation and accountability. This means that everyone has a right to participate in the management of public affairs. Similarly, everyone has the right to access information on government activities, to petition government and to seek redress through impartial administrative and judicial mechanisms.
The opportunity to exercise democratic rights in itself provides crucial training for the holistic democratic development of all citizens within a polity. Thus, the central focus should be on popular empowerment to overcome the democratic deficit to establish an acceptable level of participation and accountability. The importance of promoting democratic politics in Hong Kong, through a deepening of democratic practice, needs to be underlined. Even though strengthening of democratic institutions is essential, this is not enough to promote more effective participation by the people and more responsive decision-making by those in power. Those in power in Hong Kong need to be accountable to the people. This can ultimately be achieved only on the basis of democratic governance with a system of free and fair elections.
Given the political realities, is it reasonable to expect authentic progress towards democratisation in 2007? One way to address this question is to note that the past three months or so have verified that civil society in Hong Kong is already prepared to engage responsibly and effectively with a comprehensive system of democratic governance.