Although Sir Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” he never claimed that one size fits all.
Whereas different countries develop their political systems in light of their own experiences, each has its own distinct characteristics. Although, by one means or another, the various models invariably seek to take popular wishes into account in policy development, this is undermined when, for example, lobby groups flash their checkbooks. The fact, moreover, that one type of democracy is suitable in one place does not mean it also fits in other places, as, for example, Europe’s imperialists discovered when they tried to shape the world in their own image.
In those places that choose their leaders through direct elections, there are often wide variations, with some being less than fair. In the UK, for example, one of the world’s oldest democracies, the “first past the post” system is used for parliamentary elections, and often results in candidates with only tiny majorities being elected, having received only a fraction of the total vote. As this system is inherently unjust, given that it makes it almost impossible for minority parties ever to win a seat, the European Union has adopted proportional representation for its own elections, and this has enabled politicians of all persuasions to be represented in the Strasbourg Parliament.
In countries where governments are popularly elected, it is by no means uncommon for the electorate’s decisions to be ridden roughshod over by the victors, as recent events in the UK have shown. Whereas, for example, Boris Johnson was elected prime minister with a huge majority in the general election of 2019, a party cabal, without reference to the electorate, forced him out of office in 2022, and replaced him with Liz Truss. Although, if asked, the electorate would not have touched Truss with a barge pole, the Conservative Party’s apparatchiks thought they knew better, only to be proved spectacularly wrong when she imploded after only 44 days at No 10 Downing Street, following the most disastrous premiership in British history.
In the United States, moreover, which operates a similar electoral system to Britain’s, it is big money that calls the shots. Although it prides itself on “exceptionalism,” the politicians who win elections are invariably those with the deepest pockets or else who pledge themselves to interest groups. According to CNBC, approximately $14 billion was spent on presidential and congressional elections in 2020, more than double the figure for 2016.
Whereas the presidential campaign of 2020 cost a reported $6.6 billion, the amount spent by Democrats overall was nearly double that spent by Republicans (which may explain the Democratic Party’s victories in the White House, Senate and House of Representatives elections). The political parties and their candidates receive money from wealthy individuals, corporations and political action committees, all of whom expect something in return, a system that has consequences.
Whereas, for example, most American voters favor stronger gun laws, in the interests of public safety, the gun lobby, which pours money into elections, is more than happy with the status quo, notwithstanding the regular massacres of the innocent. In 2019, the National Rifle Association reportedly spent $3.3 million in support of the campaigns of senators who oppose gun control legislation, and this was followed by a further $2.2 million in 2020. As those who pay the piper call the tune, votes in the US Senate on issues like gun control are determined not by the wishes of the electorate, but by the powerful lobby groups who help the senators get elected.
In a fascinating insight, Bryant Harris, the congressional reporter for Defense News, disclosed on Nov 3, 2022, that “the five largest defense companies — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics — contributed a total of nearly $2 million to Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election results”, and this speaks volumes about democracy stateside.
If, moreover, big money cannot swing a US election, skulduggery is used instead. In 2021, it was widely reported that various states were drawing up plans to make it harder for people with different political views, invariably from ethnic minorities, to vote at all, including restrictions on early voting (always believed to favor the Democrats). In Georgia, for example, on March 25, 2021, Republicans rammed various voter restrictions through the legislature, and they even included criminalizing the provision of refreshments to people queueing up to vote, a move directed at African Americans, many of whom support the Democratic Party.
The Liberal Democracy Index is severely compromised, with rankings for the US and Hong Kong that whitewash the former and do a disservice to the latter. Although Soros and his ilk will be delighted, objective observers who understand Hong Kong’s democratic progress will be disgusted
In Hong Kong, fortunately, such antics are inconceivable, and democratic processes have greatly expanded since 1997. Whereas, until the 1980s, the legislative councilors were all appointed by an unelected British governor, they are all now elected, directly or indirectly. Whereas some are elected from geographical constituencies, others are elected by the professions, while the remainder is elected by a broadly representative election committee. This system has developed in light of the city’s own experiences, and is now, after a bumpy start, focused on providing good governance and promoting people’s livelihoods, which is surely the ultimate objective of any democratic system.
Whereas, moreover, the Hong Kong governor in British times was always appointed directly by the king or queen, without reference to local people, this has now all changed, which is just as well. The previous system was open to abuse, as, for example, in 1992, when Chris Patten, who had been voted out of office by the electors of his Somerset constituency, was then foisted on Hong Kong, without its people being consulted, let alone asked to consent. The chief executive, by contrast, is now a local citizen elected by an election committee, and, if the so-called “pan-democrats” had not blocked the proposal in 2015, he or she could have been elected by universal suffrage from 2017 onward.
In Hong Kong, elections are scrupulously fair (and overseen by a high court judge); every effort is made to avoid corruption of any sort (even extending to a prohibition on purchasing drinks for electors); and candidates are subject to strict financial controls, which is a far cry from the money politics that dominate US elections.
It was, therefore, extraordinary, that, when the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) issued its 2023 report, it ranked Hong Kong, in its Liberal Democracy Index, as 139th out of the 179 countries and jurisdictions surveyed, while placing the UK at 20th and the US at 23rd. The institute’s host institution is the University of Gothenburg, and its funding comes from a variety of sources, with very little being known about many of them. It seeks to provide “a unique approach” to measuring democracy, although its methodology is not easy to understand, and appears designed to confuse.
Indeed, the V-Dem Institute takes what it calls a “comprehensive approach to understanding democratization”, and this encompasses “multiple core principles: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative and egalitarian”, which smacks of gobbledygook. Its researchers deploy a multitude of indicators, which they must find bewildering, and conclusions are churned out that, while delighting particular people, lack overall credibility.
Surveys of this type, however dressed up, are always open to manipulation, which is why conclusions differ greatly, according to the methodology used and the objectives. Thus, for example, when, shortly before the V-Dem Institute reported, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) issued its Democracy Index 2022, it treated Hong Kong differently. It placed it 88th out of the 167 countries and territories surveyed, and, while this was still misleading, it was certainly considerably better than the V-Dem Institute’s ranking of 139.
It is clear, moreover, that wide fluctuations of this sort are inevitable when the strengths and weaknesses of particular democracies are inadequately assessed, and the impression of political bias by the V-Dem Institute is unavoidable. It beggars belief, for example, that the US, with its money politics, electoral abuses, political lobbying and disregard of popular wishes, could be rated at 23rd, a ranking that suggests everything in its garden is rosy, something not even its closest allies would claim.
Although it is not immediately clear why the V-Dem Institute has produced such negative conclusions about Hong Kong, its links with George Soros’ Open Society Foundations undoubtedly provide a significant clue.
Although the V-Dem Institute had Hong Kong in its sights this year, last year it targeted India, which refused to take its criticisms lying down. After India was ranked 93rd in the Liberal Democracy Index, giving the impression that its democracy was declining, OpIndia, the Indian news website, did some digging and came up with a bombshell. On March 3, 2022, it reported that Soros’ Open Society Foundations helped fund the V-Dem Institute, and that “Soros is a self-proclaimed philanthropist and Hungarian-American investor who has sworn to ‘fight nationalists’ and conservative governments throughout the world, which he commonly refers to as ‘authoritarian governments’ ”.
OpIndia also explained that Soros’ sponsorship of the V-Dem Institute revealed much about its intentions toward India. This was because “Soros has publicly expressed his hatred for India and has often denounced the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His support for an organization that ranks India as a dying democracy highlights the hollowness of the institute’s findings”.
As Soros’ views toward China mirror those he holds on India, this provides a context for the V-Dem’s Institute’s unfair assessment of Hong Kong. In 2019, at Davos, he called President Xi Jinping the world’s “most dangerous opponent,” and he thereafter praised the insurrectionists in Hong Kong for what he described as their “most successful rebellion.” In 2019, moreover, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “as founder of the Open Society Foundations, my interest in defeating Xi Jinping’s China goes beyond US national interests”, which was revelatory. If even only some of the V-Dem Institute’s other funders are cut from the same cloth as Soros, it goes a very long way toward explaining why it has placed Hong Kong at 139th in its Liberal Democracy Index.
At the very least, therefore, the Liberal Democracy Index is severely compromised, with rankings for the US and Hong Kong that whitewash the former and do a disservice to the latter. Although Soros and his ilk will be delighted, objective observers who understand Hong Kong’s democratic progress will be disgusted. The involvement of Soros, however, provides an indication of the tune the funders of the V-Dem Institute expect it to play, and its latest index lacks validity and is certainly not worth losing any sleep over.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.