02 June 2010

Got Democracy?

In HK, it seems there is no political issue more important to the people than "universal suffrage." Hongkies think they don't have it, and they want it.

With universal suffrage, and without any obvious distortions of democracy like functional constituencies, it would seem that these democracy protestors are asking for what Americans like myself already have. So let me tell you, it ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Now don't get me wrong, I support the cause of the pro-democracy crowd here in the Village, and I wouldn't trade the US Constitution for the Basic Law. But both in terms of process and policy, I don't really see a fundamental difference between the two. The anti-democratic elements in HK politics are just a little more naked.

In terms of process, neither the US Congress nor Legco can make any decisions that a majority of corporate interests oppose. This fact is obvious in HK, since the functional constituencies are so obviously controlled by corporations and Big Beijing. In the US, corporations control the political process through the two-party system, lobbyists, campaign finance and corporate control of the media. The two-party system is a bi-product of US election laws (use of single-member districts rather than proportional representation). The US Supreme Court has recently ruled that corporate influence by campaign finance and lobbying are protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution.

Routinely donating funds to both the Republican and the Democratic candidate in the same election, corporations are able to maintain influence no matter who gets elected. The two parties are supported by somewhat different, but overlapping, coalitions of business interests, and the voters are only offered the choice between two candidates who have already been pre-approved by those interests. So in the US, like in HK, the only time the will of the people matters is if the business interests are in conflict with each other.

As for policy, I see even less difference. HK has better infrastructure, better and cheaper public transportation, and a much better health care system than the US, all while collecting less money in taxes. The difference in taxes is partly explained by the fact that HK has a defense budget of near zero, and that the US pays part of the defense bill for Japan, South Korea, and Western Europe, and pays for the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. It remains unclear how these military expenditures aid ordinary Americans, though it is perfectly clear that they are extremely profitable for US corporations.

The US has cleaner air and water, and a generally less-toxic environment (or at least it did until a foreign corporation with big connections in Washington spilled a criminal amount of poison into the Gulf of Mexico). Perhaps democratic reform would bring more reasonable environmental standards to HK (and to the US as well). But when I see sustainable environmental legislation killed in the US Congress by corporate interests, I sometimes think that authoritarian states like China might actually have an edge when it comes to solving their environmental problems.

I wish Hongkies well in their fight for democracy that is less of a sham, and I wish Americans well in that same fight. Cherish your freedoms of speech and assembly; they are the most important tools in the struggle for more democratic policies, not the vote.

This is what democracy looks like.

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