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Published: 23:38, December 13, 2021 | Updated: 09:41, December 14, 2021
High voting rate not needed for good public governance
By Ho Lok-sang
Published:23:38, December 13, 2021 Updated:09:41, December 14, 2021 By Ho Lok-sang

Some people want to discredit the upcoming Legislative Council election in Hong Kong by inciting people not to vote. They figure that a low voting rate would embarrass the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, and reduce the legitimacy of the election. But a high voting rate only means the election is a high-stakes one. This typically happens when two camps with diverse interests or ideologies contest for the limited seats. Now that all the candidates have been vetted by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, the contenders are all considered to be patriotic. The coming election on Sunday is no longer considered a high-stakes election. For this reason, the voting rate is expected to be low.

Although the HKSAR government appears to be concerned about a possible low voting rate, as suggested by the abolition of public transport fares on most routes for trains, buses, ferries, and trams, we need to know that what really matters to Hong Kong is good public governance. We do not need a high voting rate to achieve good public governance.

Actually, Jason Brennan has long admonished voters not to vote unless they have done their homework. In his The Ethics of Voting, published in 2012, he argued that elected officials wield much power, and they could do much damage to human welfare. He knows, moreover, that adept politicians often will manipulate voters’ emotions and sway votes in their favor. That is exactly why voters must not allow their emotions to affect their voting behavior and must study all the candidates’ backgrounds, and have an idea of what they would actually do upon being voted into office, and not just what their election platforms are. Unfortunately, however, voters are human, and adept politicians will manipulate human weaknesses. 

A government that fails to serve its people has no legitimacy. Based on the misplaced belief that only a popularly elected government is legitimate, Western think tanks define democracy as the form of government based on elections and competition among political parties

In 2016, Brennan published a widely read critique of democracy with the formidable title Against Democracy. Democracy is supposed to serve people, but in practice there is no evidence that it leads to a better government. “Democracy is the rule of the ignorant and the irrational, and it all too often falls short,” an overview of the book thus summarizes. “Given this grim picture, Brennan argues that a new system of government — epistocracy, the rule of the knowledgeable — may be better than democracy, and that it’s time to experiment and find out.” 

Epistocracy is another word for meritocracy, and China is sometimes considered to be such. Daniel Bell referred to China as such in his book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton, 2015). According to him, “Chinese meritocrats support democratic values but not elections.” (The Economist, 2018). Ballot-box democracy is only one form of democracy. The State Council has just published an article on how China practices democracy. (“China: democracy that works”, China Daily, Dec 4, 2021). To China, democracy that works is democracy that delivers, and the Communist Party of China has been proved to serve the interests of its people.

Beijing is clearly doubtful about ballot-box democracy; but given Hong Kong people’s aspirations for universal suffrage, Beijing has allowed the HKSAR to eventually elect its chief executive through universal suffrage, on the terms specified in the Basic Law. However, the “pan-democrats” wanted to bypass the Nominating Committee that is specifically required and demanded “civic nomination.” When Beijing insists on following the Basic Law, the “pan-democrats” charged that Beijing had reneged on its promise and resorted to “Occupy Central” and violence. Beijing put an end to the folly and finally returned the HKSAR to peace and order by introducing the National Security Law for Hong Kong and reforming the electoral system.  

Some people think that a government needs a high rate of endorsement by the vote in order to be legitimate. Believers of Western-style democracy subscribe to the view that only a popularly elected government is legitimate. But this is blind belief. A government that fails to serve its people has no legitimacy. Based on the misplaced belief that only a popularly elected government is legitimate, Western think tanks define democracy as the form of government based on elections and competition among political parties. China, accordingly, by their definition is an “autocracy”. Unfortunately, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights does carry the misleading clause (Article 21) that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” This needs to change. All people should of course enjoy equal political rights. But “equal political rights” does not mean the government needs to be elected. It does mean, however, that everybody has the right to compete by merit for official positions. 

Beijing did approve political reform in 2015 that offered universal suffrage for the election of the HKSAR’s chief executive. Anyone who runs for the chief executive post needs to be nominated by only 10 percent of the Nominating Committee members in order to enter the race. The NC would select two to three of the initial nominees for election by all registered voters in Hong Kong. Regrettably, it was rejected by the opposition camp which then resorted to extreme measures to force Beijing’s hand. The rest is history. 

The author is director of the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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