“What ‘Democracy’ means to us?”
A Seminar on Democracy in East Asia by members of Peace East Asia
Peace East Asia
With the support of
The Asia Institute
Jingyu GAO (China)
LeoYao LU (China)
Myeongsu Ryu TODA (ROK)
Sunny Chan Yiu LAM (HK)
Shi Pong LEE (HK)
Yumiko SHIMOGAKI (Japan)
Emanuel Pastreich (United States)
(Director, The Asia Institute)
(Based on a series of discussions held on October 5, November 15, November 22, and December 6, 2014)
Opening Remarks by Emanuel Pastreich (United States)
This seminar presented us with a valuable opportunity to learn about each other, and also to learn about our own perspectives and our own biases. We came to the question of democracy, and specifically the case of Hong Kong, with a general impression the issue based on how we saw it presented in the media. But in fact that are many aspects of politics in Hong Kong and of democracy today that we do not understand all that well. The very term “democracy” is not a given like “tomato” or “oxygen” but rather a vague term subject to an infinite number of interpretations. The value of this effort by youth from many different countries to create a platform for an honest and non-political discussion about the important issues of our age is critical to our future and it is an honor to be here today for this event.
I was struck by the sincerity of the questions raised and the care of the responses given in the course of this discussion. There was a sincerity that was striking about the discussion and I was touched by the clear desire of the students to understand the problems in Hong Kong in a larger context. By extending their discussion to all of Asia, and avoiding a narrow definition of democracy, they have opened the way to a constructive dialog that will extend to the rest of Asia, and to the world.
Youth in Hong Kong are facing incredible pressures. They face economic pressures related to the breakdown of the economic system that supported their parents; political pressures related to the immense influence that other nations have on Hong Kong because of its links to global capital; social pressures related to an aging society and the profound alienation among young people today.
We were lucky to have students from Hong Kong who have real experience in our discussion. Although it is not that hard to do, in fact few people engaged in discussions about Hong Kong actually reach out to those directly involved.
I feel that this debate has set a new precedent for youth across Asia to employ the internet not merely as a means of entertainment and distraction, but as a way to exchange opinions and present new ideas in a positive sense. I believe that there is no limit to the potential of this thoughtful discussion to create a brighter future for Asia. I hope that we can in the future take on even more controversial and complex topics with the same degree of moderation and equanimity.
And let us not underestimate the significance of this gathering. In closing, I would like to quote the famous word of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, all the more relevant to us today:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Jingyu GAO (China)
The word “Democracy” seems to be particularly ambiguous for people living in mainland China. While Xi Jinping’s administration has repeated many times that China should not apply the democratic system – voting, checks and balances, etc – to its own governance, the government is overtly, if not blatantly, propagating a 24-word term, the so-called “Core Values of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”
a political slogan which surprisingly includes “Democracy” (民主). But in light of the recent ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in Hong Kong and the hard-line response to it from the central government, it remains quite confusing what 民主 actually stands for, in the views of the Chinese central government and its people.
What is democracy? I have heard many times from my fellows from Hong Kong and Taiwan that one important aspect of democracy is voting, which means people who are legible for voting may have an equal say in selecting a favorable candidate serving for their region and then the country as a whole. If there is no voting, in an election that is transparent to everyone involved in it, then no democracy happening there. This is the first impression of what Hong Kong protestors have shown to me, but I feel confused about why they have been insisted on it with so much effort and time. Perhaps this feeling is popular among many Chinese as well since we have not experienced such a process, even anything close to it, for all our lives.
So the main reason why Chinese mainlanders sometimes misunderstand those protests in Hong Kong is not that they disfavor “democracy”, more specifically universal suffrage, but that they are unfamiliar with this concept at all. When it comes to the word ‘democracy’, people have no idea of what it is. Its Chinese translation consists of min or ‘people’, and zhu or ‘decide’. Does it mean “the people decide”? They decide WHAT? Chinese mainlanders, at least most of them I have known, hardly know any answers to these questions. When they saw the news about Occupy Hong Kong, these questions only confused them when they thought about it.
Such confusion can easily encourage them to link those demonstrations with what happened in 1989, when the PLA cleared the Tiananmen Square of a student’s-and-worker’s political campaign that lasted for months, but failed in blood. As this memory has faded among the new Chinese generations who know little of this history, they are left both curious and baffled. And in addition, the Beijing government is trying to push them discard it further, by firmer censorship on information, especially the Internet.
The idea that the government leaders are omnipotent and always have the best solutions is still ingrained in China. I found many comments on Umbrella Revolution in the WeChat forum, posted by my friends, saying “All you see in Hong Kong is just the surface. Whatever it can be, be it a political conspiracy brought by western enemies, or a true movement of Hong Kong people, the governments of all sides, including China, Hong Kong even the United States, etc, have planned everything. We all are actors, watchers and sometimes, if lucky enough, the players in this big drama. You cannot influence those final stakeholders who stand behind the scenes.” In other words, these commentators believe that the best way to deal with the revolution is to wait and see, doing nothing, since no one except the government itself can change anything.
I find it hard to debate with my friends who argue like the above. Their tricky response to my defense for the democratic movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan is meaningless: you are forever unable to challenge anything because the ‘big players’ know much more than you do. The Chinese government’s method of propaganda is highly effective; though not to me, but to most people who scarcely think of the perspective that “the government can sometimes be wrong and it cannot be forever able to consider things from the grand scale ‘统筹兼顾’. My friends and parents and some teachers are not even trying to get rid of this dilemma: the over-confidence in government will sometimes ruin it, and finally ruin you too.
China has a long way ahead toward democratization, if possible. The first step is to help Chinese find what they would want if someday a leader similar to Taiwan’s Chiang Ching-Kuo came to power. And it is also important to encourage the people to challenge what the government might have done mistakenly, such as the San Xia Dam.
Myeongsu Ryu TODA (Republic of Korea)
South Koreans have had various transition-incidents in their long process of achieving democracy. Even though criticisms toward the performance and authenticity of South Korean democracy still remain, democracy in this country can be seen as consolidated after the historic transition of 1987.
Before 1987, South Korea had undergone 27 years of student’s and citizen’s -centered efforts for achieving democracy. Because of these efforts, in 1987, the indirect presidential election rule eventually was restored to direct elections, and the long-time authoritarian regimes came to the end.
In the process of achieving democracy by the South Korean public, three major incidents need to be mentioned: the April 19 Revolution, the May 18 Democratic Uprising, and the June Democratic Movement.
The first major democratic protest took place in 1960, against the authoritarian regime led by the first President of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee [Lee Seung-man]. This movement was due to the electoral corruption of Rhee’s regime and his acts that curbed freedom of the press, that both worked to the disadvantage of opposition parties. In March 1960, a protest against corruption took place in Masan, a southern industrial harbor of Korea. During this protest, a violent collision between students and police happened. On April 11, as a student’s corpse was discovered in Masan harbor, killed by a police tear-gas grenade, the public exploited in rage and the movement became bigger and bigger. As a result, this movement brought about the result of Syngman Rhee’s resignation, and has become designated as a “revolution”.
The second major protest, the May 18 Democratic Uprising, also known as Gwangju Uprising, happened from May 18 until 27 in 1980. This large anti-government, anti-corruption movement started from a peaceful protest by Jeonnam University students; and once police took violent actions and fired upon them, killing and injuring some students who were demonstrating, many of the Gwangju citizens took to the streets in public actions against military oppression. During the movement, more than 240 people died. Even after the movement, the Chun Doo Hwan [Jeon Du-hwan] military regime arrested more than 1000 people related to the protest. However, even though the movement ended as a failure, it became a symbolic historic incident that prompted further aspiration toward democracy among the South Korean public, and successfully inspired a continuous democratic movement afterwards.
The third major movement, now called the June Democratic Movement, happened exactly in the transition period, 1987, and caused it. This mass protest that affected all of South Korea, occurred from June 10 to June 26. During this period, President Chun who had taken power for around 7 years by military force, and manipulating the elections to rule, finally announced that the next president candidate would be his key assistant Roh Tae Woo [No Tae-u]. As Roh announced revised plans for direct presidential election with freedom of opposition candidates, South Korean public achieved the fruits of its 27 years of efforts.
From these three symbolic movements from the South Korean public, mainly led by students and labor groups, we can understand that South Korean democracy was attained by successive move from the grass-roots. Of course, the Korean public still cannot say that democracy is fully consolidated in their country, and there are still many pro-democratic protests going on. However, at the same time, it clearly shows that democracy for South Korea, as in any other country, is a process rather than a result. Successive movements in the past were not only ended as a result of the transition in 1987, but they also form a further continuous inspiration and process toward an ever-more consolidated democracy.
Sunny Chan Yiu LAM (Hong Kong)
The “Umbrella Revolution” is a social movement starting from October 2014, with the theme of pursuing a genuine democratized government for Hong Kong. A large number of protesters occupied roads in multiple areas, trying to blocking them and making a large-scale protest against the current government that lasted for days and then months. The main reason for people participating in this movement was to voice their hostility towards the Hong Kong government, which has performed poorly in handling several major problems, and to pursue change for the current “malfunctioning” government.
The problems that cause these people’s hostility towards the government include failure to deal with social influences from China – Chinese immigrants or visitors competing for social welfare, education opportunities, essential items such as baby-formula-milk, housing and healthcare services. Increasing influences from China have led to surging housing prices, lack of essential supplies, reduced living-spaces and reduced quality-of-life. The problems related to China and mainland Chinese people have stirred up a general hostility among Hong Kong’s citizens.
The issue of the election system has been the core of the political problem in Hong Kong. Its government has been urged for years by the people to develop a democratic general election system. The Hong Kong government has proposed that Hong Kong will have a general election for Chief Executive as early as 2017. Just before the “Umbrella Revolution” erupted, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has made a resolution that proposed that all candidates for Chief Executive of Hong Kong must be ‘pro-China’. In other words, candidates that are not pro-China will not be eligible to run in the general election.
As a result, anger towards the proposed election system was stirred-up. The proposed general election is considered a forged, counterfeit democratic election. Therefore, Hong Kong youths feel hopeless and hostile towards such an unjust society and a malfunctioning government. They want to make a change in this current situation by instilling more democracy, which means to have a genuine general election for Chief Executive – that is the main theme of the Umbrella Revolution. During it so-far, the Police have demonstrated an overuse of violence against protesters. This is also a factor which triggered even more people to protest.
The Hong Kong Government, the pro-establishment (generally speaking, pro-HK-government and pro-China) figures and the Chinese government have been considered by many young people to be liars and shameless when it comes to their rhetoric and interventions against the Umbrella Revolution. Young people in Hong Kong hope to have a more democratic government for their territory, a government that addresses needs of Hong Kong’s people, responding to the voices of Hong Kong’s people, not violently suppressing those voices. Young people know that democracy is not the panacea to all the social problems faced by Hong Kong’s citizens, but it is the first step that people could take to make changes in the current situation.
At time of this report, all the occupied areas have been cleared by the Police. The Umbrella Revolution has appeared to come to an end, but the situation is still polarized and needs to be addressed. Since people in Hong Kong have been somewhat awakened by the Umbrella Revolution, their views will have more say in the future. The Umbrella Revolution will only be the beginning of increased participation in social issues and politics among them.
LeoYao LU (China)
When western scholars talk about China, they confirm its rapid economic development, but at the same time, they criticize its lagging political reform. There are two questions Western scholars ask: Will China ever be democratized? Will China continue its rapid economic development without implementing political reforms?
Beyond answering these two questions, several concepts we shall discuss in this essay need to be clarified. To start with, what are “political reforms”? Political reforms are one sort of reform movement. Reform movements are social movements that aim to make gradual changes or modifications in certain aspects of society, rather than rapid or fundamental changes. In other words, they maintain the basic structure of the current system, but attempt to achieve internal adjustment and transformation. A reform movement is distinguished from more radical social movements such as revolutionary movements.
Reforms are the principal power to push forward social development. Societies are constantly improved through reforms and they embody the inexorable trend of social development. Reforms can be conducted in various aspects, such as in political-wise, social-wise, cultural-wise, economical-wise, religious-wise and the list goes on. This leads to a concept we will discuss here. The political reforms we are talking about in this paper are covered by this definition; they entail systematic changes on the political level and gradual reforms of governance and regime systems.
However, political reform is a broad concept, widely applicable and rich in meaning. Thus, depending on different standpoints it can be explained in different ways.
Now there comes the second concept: Chinese-style political reforms. Literally, it means reforms in the political realm but with “Chinese characteristics.” However, exactly what that last term means, remains unclear.
Ever since Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang took office, there is are expectations rising from the reports that they are younger, well-educated and open-minded, with years of overseas experiences, and they speak a language that even the common citizens can understand. They appeared like a gust of fresh air, ready to bring new ideas or even ‘democracy’ to China. The whole world was holding its breath and expecting to witness the advent of a fresh miracle in China.
Notwithstanding these perceptions, this seems way too optimistic. In the past 14 months, we have observed some transformation in the Chinese political system under the Xi-Li administration. On one hand, anti-corruption campaigns have been conducted on an unprecedented scale. In the year 2013 alone, there were over 20 provincial and minister-level officials investigated, brought to trial and accused of heavy corruption and abuse-of-power. For another thing, we noticed that the central government has put a lot of effort into building a more service-orientated government on all hierarchy levels, starting from central and provincial, all the way down to county and town level governments. Not only the transformation of government functions towards being more sensitive to people’s needs and service-orientated, rather than intensive macro-control and distribution-supurvising, but also the word ‘democracy’ was mentioned by Xi and Li on a lot of occasions (much more than by their predecessors).
Does it mean that China is on the way towards democratization? Be the positive changes as they may, we should never overlook other conspicuous policies implemented in the meantime, which shall certainly help us understand why this political reform is ‘stamped with Chinese characteristics’.
First of all, on multiple diverse occasions, Xi Jinping has emphasized that the bottom-line of its reform is based on the four cardinal principles (坚持四项基本原则), which consists of four points: persisting on the socialist road, holding onto the people’s democratic dictatorship, sticking to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s ideologies, as well as maintaining the leadership of the Communist Party of China. The principle idea here is that the one-party system is unlikely to be changed in the near future.
Secondly, Xi Jinping pointed out that there are five developments that will not happen: a pluralistic party system, allowing competing ideologies, federalism, a triangular separation of powers paired with a bicameral system, and overall privatization.
Furthermore, the ‘democracy’ Xi-Li mentioned should be defined as ‘Chinese-style democracy’, which includes inner-party democracy and democracy at the grassroots and community level. Under the premise of insisting on the leadership of the CCP, this Chinese-style democracy cannot be compared to Western-style democracy.
So far, we can infer that the current Chinese-style political reforms are a combination of anti-corruption measures, adjustments of administrative functions and promotion of this ‘Chinese style democracy’. Here we introduce an illustration, to have a better understanding of the inter-relationship among the concepts.
China needs political reform, for sure. But in terms of what kind of political reforms should be implemented remains an ongoing discussion. So it seems persuasive that what China needs and what the rest of the world expects is democratization, by which it means the modern form of government organization, where the government officials are selected from the people, a limited constitutional system of government was established, with characteristics like separation of powers, a two-chamber system, and multi-party competition. Correspondingly, what top Chinese leaders are carrying-out is called Chinese-style political reform, which mostly includes anti-corruption campaigns, transformations of administrative functions and further implementation of ‘Chinese-style democracy’. Briefly speaking, under the current governance, the CCP will keep power and will always be kept in power, under any circumstances.
Shi Pong LEE (Hong Kong)
Recently, Hong Kong has been facing a series of crises while falling under Communist control. The initial main issue has been about the establishment of national (mainland) education policies in May 2011. At that time, some students formed a group called ‘Scholarism’, in order to disagree all the ‘patriotic brainwashing’ teaching in schools in the upcoming future. They provoked many students to boycott school and go out to protest. Later, more citizens supported them and joined their campaign. After one year, the Hong Kong government announced that the national education policy was cancelled, and at the same time acknowledging the success of the student campaign.
The Chinese government vented their anger at those citizens and students, and they decided to become more involved in controlling Hong Kong affairs. In June 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced their “Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” There were some sensitive wordings that aroused sharp discussion among the citizens. For example: “The future Chief Executive must be loving both Hong Kong and China” (meaning that any such leader needs to follow the ideas of the Communist Party), “’One Country, Two Systems’ is elaborated as ‘one country is larger than two systems’” (the level of autonomy in Hong Kong depends on the Chinese government), and so-on. Many Hong Kong people were astonished by after the book issued. They thought that their freedom has been being eliminated by the Chinese Communist Party, and this has increased their anti-China thoughts since that time.
What HK people think is the “best chief executive requirement” is to love Hong Kong, and also to respect China. In the same spirit in which Britain and China once agreed that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ means that Hong Kong’s people would be ruling Hong Kong. When a new chief executive is selected, the government is merely required to notify the Chinese government, instead of having him selected by them.
A democracy is not useful to a regime that doesn’t care about its people, but it is needed by them. Hong Kong citizens, especially its teenagers, are now living ‘in deep water and scorching fire’. They need to face the consequences of overpopulation in this city— expensive rents, a high inflation rate compared with fixed salary for years, and stressful lifestyles… In addition, they feel that new Chinese immigrants who are not qualified as real ‘Hong Kong people’ sharing the same welfare benefits with them is unfair, and also that these newcomers commit many immoral acts that affect their daily lives. At the same time, the Hong Kong government has turned a blind eye to those issues, merely informing citizens to tolerate the immigrant’s behavior. People are feeling desperate, and they believe democracy can change at least part of the social issues, as a way to relive the severe contradictions between Hong Kong’s people and the mainland Chinese.
Yumiko SHIMOGAKI (Japan)
You might find a sense of flaccidity on attitudes towards democracy among Japanese youth, if you consider the title question from a perspective of voting rates. Actually, as for voting rate of the latest Parliament election 2014, whilst 74% was accounted among people in their 60s, only 37% was shown among people in their 20s. Moreover, as concern rose about the predictable low voting rate, a short film highlighting the importance of universal suffrage was spread from Hong Kong to Japan. Admittedly, when it comes to voting rate considered by itself, Japanese youths seem to no longer deserve to live in a democracy.
So, do we have to just prepare to tolerate criticisms from those who regard universal suffrage as the main point of a functional democracy? Personally, I disagree with that. This is simply because there must be not only be universal suffrage but also further formations to keep the proper balance between nation (demos) and authority (kratia), which should flexibly adjust to today’s demands by citizens. Besides, as M. K. Gandhi said, the spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition of forms; it requires change of hearts. If you are really a democrat, everything begins with change of your heart instead of adherence to certain systems. In order to strengthen democracy as a part of change, the questions of what democracy is for us, and how to develop our democracy, should both be explored within a modern context.
I will describe our democracy as a reduction of social disparities. Liberty is already guaranteed by democratic systems such as universal suffrage in Japan. Under that circumstance we have been set free, although without ample social safety nets. Consequently, many kinds of disparity have developed, which could be the main cause to diminish democracy. Hence, I think that those who are in an attempt to resolve social disparities can play more important roles in our democracy.
I also conclude that our future is brighter, as far as the soaring number of social entrepreneurs is concerned. Our young generation has been exposed to more kinds of social problems, and is also more likely to go beyond our borders, and see the broader world. Our generation can do more things individually, now that we are ready to change our society. While observing various societies, we can consider what is problematic, and take any action by dint of resolution with our peers. This new democracy of ours has just been triggered, and it is shaped towards happiness.
Reflections on the seminars
Jingyu GAO (China)
This seminar served as the starting point of the road upon which I came to further understand what democracy is, without the influence of biased media coverage, but truly in communication with real movement activists as well as many others who do care.
I particularly enjoyed talking to Hong Kong students, listening to them describe what they saw, heard and thought; things that are not easily observed otherwise where I live on China’s mainland. Although we still have a lot of disagreements such as what democracy stands for, I am looking forward to more seminars as inspiring as what PEA brought to us.
Leo Yao LU (China)
It was a pretty fresh experience for me to be a part of this online seminar. Throughout the process, many topics were brought onto the table, many points of view were shared, and I was exposed to brand new angles from which to view the same incident. It goes a long way towards fostering my critical thinking, tolerance in ideological and political scenarios, as well as my understanding of Hong Kong.
I think that what I learned is, no matter what happens in the future, I will refrain jumping to the conclusions off the top of my mind, but rather hold on a bit first, observe how it evolves, think twice, and then most importantly, listen with a sincere heart. It was a fruitful and meaningful seminar.
Myeongsu Ryu TODA (ROK)
The topic of the first PEA online seminar was about the pro-democratic movement in Hong Kong. The topic itself is a sensitive topic for the Chinese government. What actually happened during the discussion was impressive: our Internet connection suddenly disconnected several times when our dialogues reached the most sensitive matters.
We supposed that this was the censorship of the Chinese government. This was an interesting experience, but it indicates that the discussion should be something going beyond governmental and national boundaries, and I was impressed by the fact that we are achieving it through this platform. There are many topics such as history, territorial disputes, security issues and so on, that should be discussed among young people in East Asian countries, but this is often hard to achieve due to lack of opportunities and the pressure of public emotions.
Throughout the first PEA online seminar, I realized that there are many students who want to talk more about these topics with students from neighboring countries and regions. For example, Chinese students from mainland China actually want to know more about the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
I believe further discussions in PEA online seminars will provide a platform for increasing the opportunities for truthful dialogues among people in East Asian regions.
Sunny Chan Yiu LAM (Hong Kong )
The free exchange of ideas and opinions in the whole course of this online seminar has impressed me a lot. Although all participants have different perspectives and backgrounds, we expressed our views towards democracy, the PRC government and international affairs in an effective and peaceful way.
I believe that all of us have benefitted from learning more about different thoughts from different people. I want to express my greatest gratitude to all of you, especially Professor Pastreich, Ackey, Yumiko and Jingyu Gao, for establishing and contributing to this discussion platform and giving me this precious opportunity to learn about all of you.
Shi Pong LEE (Hong Kong)
I feel honored to be a part of the PEA online seminar. As a HK citizen, I am impressed with how others Asians are concerned with the umbrella movement. The discussion has been eye-opening and has made me more willing to listen to others’ perspectives. Although everyone has a different opinion it is always good to view things in an objective matter. Although the seminar has come to an end, I will still be aware of the political issues among Asians.
Thanks everyone, for their contributions in this online seminar; I wish we all have benefits from this discussion.
Kwan Cheung TZU (Hong Kong)
When you come across information about a certain issue repeatedly, you may stop thinking of new ideas and just insist on your own belief. What is the purpose of the ‘occupy movement’ in Hong Kong? For many Hong Kongers, the answer is straight forward — we want genuine universal suffrage. Doesn’t this sound quite right? But the online discussion with overseas people from different regions can provoke us to think a little bit deeper. Is democracy an ultimate solution for every social problem? What makes Hong Kong people so determined to fight for their rights? Hong Kong is not the only city facing similar problems. All these questions may not sound special, but they do inspire me to think carefully about what we are really protesting for.
This is what makes sharing with “outside” people a great experience.
Yumiko SHIMOGAKI (Japan)
This online seminar had two main points: firstly, having this cyber-space for discussion per-se is a very first attempt in a pursue gaining better understandings among East Asian youths; secondly, like this topic of what is democracy for us, considering the umbrella revolution in Hong Kong, tackling such a universally social problem can be the main driver to shape our futures in East Asia. Besides, Professor Pastreich’s advice always brings us the right direction to discuss towards, instead of bringing us nowhere but emotional chaotic conflict.
Meanwhile, some further members, especially professionals who are even not East Asians, might lead discussions to be more interesting in terms of offering diverse and practical viewpoints.
Hence, the more diverse we are, the more we reach some truth! I cannot wait for the next discussion with new members just like you.