Published: 00:20, June 9, 2020 | Updated: 01:00, June 6, 2023
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Freedom of speech can thrive under the national security law
By Ho Lok-sang

Mr Bruce Lui Ping-kuen, a Baptist University senior lecturer, criticized the national security law as nothing but a “Party security law”. He is partly right. To Beijing, preserving the unitary leadership system is very important. He is only partly right because that law does far more than that.

Lui is, however, wrong in assuming that the one-party system is undemocratic. There are good reasons to preserve the one-party state. The reason is that it is an important public good to the country. The rapid rise of China across many fronts, to the extent that US News this year rated China among the world’s best countries (15th in the world, up from 16th in 2019, out of 80 countries), testifies to the contribution of the unitary leadership system.

Many people in Hong Kong assume that the one-party system is totalitarian and undemocratic. Abraham Lincoln had famously summarized democracy as “by the people, for the people, and of the people.” My advice is that we should judge how democratic a country is by first asking whether its government is working “for the people” and second whether its people trust it so it is a government “of the people.”

According to the World Bank, China has lifted 850 million people out of poverty since 1979. According to the United Nations Development Programme, between 1990 and 2018, China’s Human Development Index increased from 0.501 to 0.758, representing an increase of 51.1 percent. China’s gross national income per capita increased by about 954.0 percent between 1990 and 2018. China’s life expectancy rose from 43.45 in 1950 to 76.96 in 2020. According to World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, China has been steadily improving in several dimensions of public governance. For example, China’s rule-of-law ranking went up from the bottom 40 percent in 2008 to just short of median in 2018, at 48.1 percent. Control of Corruption showed similar improvement, from a bottom of 36.4 percent rising to 45.7 percent. Government effectiveness jumped from 58.7 percent to 69.7 percent.

Freedom of speech must be subject to some reasonable and transparent limitations with clear delineation about what cannot be tolerated. Thus, although anyone should have the freedom to criticize any specific policy or decision, slander or hate speech should not be allowed

Thus, the Chinese government, notwithstanding or because of its unitary leadership, is clearly “for the people.”

According to the Edelman 2020 Trust Barometer, China’s trust index among the general population rose from 79 to 82 from 2019 to 2020, and tops the world. In contrast, the US index fell from 49 to 47. Any score below 50 signifies distrust. Any score over 60 signifies trust. Because of the fallout from the extradition amendment bill last year, Hong Kong’s 2020 trust score fell, from 55 to 50. But this is still better than that of the US.

Although the Chinese leadership is not elected through universal suffrage, Chinese nationals have the right to enter the race to rise to the top through a fair contest against some key criteria of performance and ability. There is no evidence that elections or multiparty politics will serve China better. The Chinese Communist Party has 90 million members. If China’s leadership is not elected “by the people”, at least it is selected “from the people.”

Can anyone tell me how a government for the people, of the people, and from the people can be totalitarian?

Subverting the one-party system on the mainland goes against the will of the Chinese people and violates the principle of “river water not intruding into well water.” If Hong Kong people truly believe in democratic principles, they must not dictate their beliefs on others.

The Chinese Communist Party provides unitary leadership to unite the Chinese people. As such it is an infrastructure that is intended to unite the Chinese people to serve the Chinese people. That is why trying to end the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party can be considered subversive: subverting the Chinese people’s interests. 

This is not to say that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be criticized. As a Hong Konger, I am all for freedom of speech, but criticisms must be reasoned and forward-looking, with a view to further improving its governance. This is how it can evolve for the better.

Freedom of speech must be subject to some reasonable and transparent limitations with clear delineation about what cannot be tolerated. Thus, although anyone should have the freedom to criticize any specific policy or decision, slander or hate speech should not be allowed. Since no one is above criticism, criticizing any government official with the view to improving the quality of policymaking should be allowed and even encouraged. If there is evidence of a criminal offense, critics can bring this up and help bring the offenders to justice. 

The Party has over the years improved its governance dramatically. Indeed, it is still an ongoing process. For example, improving governance within the party is a key theme in the fourth plenum of the 19th Central Committee last year. This conscious effort to improve is why China has delivered so many mind-blowing achievements: Poverty alleviation, life expectancy improvement, strong and steady economic growth, a great improvement in environmental protection and ecological rejuvenation, and a dramatic upgrading of infrastructure.

Mr Lui is right in saying that the national security law has to do with protecting China’s political system. China’s unitary leadership system has served people well, and the evidence is loud and clear. Shouldn’t we protect it?

The author is a senior research fellow at the Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.