The “Goddess of Democracy”
and the Future of Hong Kong
In the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, I have often been asked my views on Hong Kong’s future. This article, written in 1991, was my response.
The “Goddess of Democracy” is an extraordinarily powerful political symbol — which continues to live. For example, China fought, for two years, a plan to erect a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Symbols can have extraordinary power in human consciousness, as anyone familiar with Carl Gustav Jung’s work with archetypes (a type of symbol) will know.
A symbol, according to my dictionary, is “a material object representing something, often something immaterial.” This definition is rather vague — a major aspect of a symbol which, in part, gives it so much of its power. However, “something immaterial” is usually an idea, or set of ideas.
Symbols exist all around us — politics and elsewhere. Take, for example, the swastika; or the hammer and sickle. They are symbols; they elicit, in you, certain reactions (but how many people can define exactly what they stand for?). And depending on your own values, your reaction to each symbol will be positive or negative.
Also, I suggest, your positive or negative reaction will be automatic: that is emotional in nature.
As one example of the power of a symbol, consider the white supremacist or separatist movement in South Africa, led by Eugene Terre’blanche. The symbol they chose, consciously or otherwise, bears a remarkable resemblance to the Nazi swastika. Many people — including Hong Kong “analysts” in the press — reacted emotionally to the similarity in the symbols, without comparing expressed or implicit ideas, beyond the obvious racism of both.
Or consider religious symbols: The Cross of Christianity, with its theme of suffering; compared to the message of the laughing Buddha. It’s easy to see how people raised under these two symbols would come to have divergent attitudes on life…the messages of a symbol don’t have to be made explicit to be absorbed.
20th century symbols
Symbols are all around us, even in the more mundane area of brand names. Here, symbols are often words or letters displayed in a particular design, like Coke, Coca-Cola, or IBM. In fact, the alternate meaning of the word “symbol” — according to my Random House Dictionary of the English Language — is “a letter, figure, or a combination of letters used to represent an object or idea, as in chemistry or astronomy.” Or brand names.
Companies spend millions of dollars each year on advertising, in an attempt to implant an emotionally-favorable reaction within us to the sight of their brand-name image or logo. The supposed trust that consumers have in a particular brand name is very real and very valuable to the company: the decision to make a purchase is often based, wholly or partly, on the emotional reaction to a brand name. Take, for example, a small item of minor value like batteries, where you really have no information to go on — which one actually does last longer? I really don’t know…do you? The higher price of the brand name battery is still an irrelevant amount. The chances are you’ll pay a little more for the brand name battery — especially if you’ve had the experience, as I have, of finding some nondescript brand having leaked everywhere and possibly damaged your expensive CD player. You’ll buy the brand name battery to take better care of your equipment.
Symbols: a focus for emotions
A “symbol” is “an emotional concept.” More specifically, a symbol is a mental focus for an emotional reaction to the idea or set of ideas behind the symbol. Symbols — like archetypes — bypass consciousness and straight to the emotions. Emotions are powerful and automatic reactions to subconsciously-held values; and are thought by most people to be the opposite to ideas, thoughts, or concepts that are rationally and precisely defined, and intellectually held.
As such, a symbol lacks the intellectual clarity — it can be many things to many people. Symbols are often used in this way on purpose: Adolf Hitler vested his chosen symbol of the swastika with its current meaning by his powerful, hypnotic oratory.
Consider, now, the “Goddess of Democracy” in the context of this definition. Remember, this was a replica of the Statue of Liberty. Did the students in Tiananmen square die for a piece of wood or papier mache? Of course not. It was what that symbol represented that they died for — the ideas and concepts behind it even though they didn’t really understand what they were. I’ll return to this point in a moment.
Were this ideas and concepts precisely defined? No. Was the reaction of the world to the massacre on Tiananmen square a rationally-considered response to the battle of ideas in Peking? No — it was an emotional outpouring; a reaction, in part, to seeing a western symbol being destroyed by tanks.
The meaning of democracy
So let’s now be specific about the meaning of these symbols, the “Goddess of Democracy” and the Statue of Liberty. We are actually hazy about what democracy is and means. We refer to western countries as democracies…this is only partially true. According to the Greeks, the inevitable result of democracy was tyranny. Why? Democracy means mob rule; the rule of the majority. In ancient Greece, there were no restraints on democracy, so democracy became the tyranny of the mob — not even, necessarily, a majority.
When we call western countries democracies, what we mean is countries with governments whose sphere of authority is to some degree limited — either by traditions, as in Britain, or formally by a constitution as in the United States — and whose leaders are selected by the vote of majority.
A friend of mine was giving a talk to a group of high school kids. One of the kids was heckling him, especially on this subject of the meaning of democracy. With a sudden inspiration he said, “You know, I don’t like your haircut.” His hair was long and bedraggled, apparently. Gathering the impression that he was rather unpopular with the other students, he asked his audience who thought he needed a haircut. A large number of hands went up. “Let’s vote on it,” he said. “Everyone in favor of giving this guy a haircut, raise your hands.” A majority of hands went up. Turning to the kid he said, “Now, that’s democracy.”
Democracy and tyranny
Democracy is a method of selecting rulers — nothing more, nothing less. Without restraints on the sphere of government, democracy inevitably leads to tyranny. (Where there are restraints, democracy inevitably leads to erosion of those restraints.) Freedom, political freedom, is the absence of government restraints on the activities of the citizens. In a free and sovereign state, democracy is merely the favored method of selecting rulers — freedom of the individual is transferred to the political realm. However, democracy is not necessary for the existence of political and economic freedom. Hong Kong, for example, was possibly the freest place on earth before the bureaucratic empire-builders, following the appointment of Sir Murray (now Lord) Maclehose as governor, arrived on the scene in the 1970s. It was — until then — freedom by benign neglect.
So the “Goddess of Democracy” stands for a method of selecting rulers — a method that just happen to be used in countries that are also, by and large, free. Democracy is no guarantee of freedom: Adolf Hitler, for example, was democratically elected though he did, of course, remain in power by means of a coup. Most former British colonies were democracies — for one election.
Liberty and the Republic
What, in contrast, does the Statue of Liberty represent? The United States, when founded, was not a democracy. It was a republic. Only the Lower House of Congress, the House of Representative, was elected by popular vote. Senators were appointed by the governments of the states. The President was elected by an electoral college, only recently by popular vote. The form of government represented by the Statue of Liberty, is — or should I say was — a strictly limited form of government; so limited that the method of selection of rulers was irrelevant to most of the populace. Like Hong Kong 20 years ago.
The United States once stood for political and economic freedom for the individual. Of course, it was not perfect…the inscription on the Statue of Liberty should have been amended to read, give me your poor, huddled masses — so long as they’re not black, brown or yellow. But to the rest of the world, the United States, if it is not seen to stand for western imperialism is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. And it remains, of course, one of the freest countries on earth.
According to no less an authority than George Bush, the United States now stands for democracy. Unfortunately, today he is correct. And since America’s war with Iraq, it stands for even less: the self-determination of nation-states, as defined by their existing rulers. The United States has supported dictators before: in Kuwait, however, I think this is the first time it went to war to reinstate a monarchy. A feudal monarchy at that.
The hollow beacon of freedom
In other words, as a political symbol the United States has become a hollow idol. For millions of people around the world, it’s a beacon of freedom; but in the war of ideas, in the fight against totalitarianism, what does the government of the United States offer the world?…we should be thankful that the power of the Statue of Liberty is greater than the power of the US government.
In sending tanks into the Tiananmen square, Deng Xiao-ping and his gerontocracy acted with perfect logic. They, better than George Bush, better than the students, understood perfectly what the “Goddess of Democracy” meant — and meant for them. Perhaps they overreacted — I’m not trying to excuse them, but merely to point out that what they did should have been no surprise to anyone. The “Goddess of Democracy” was a personal affront. It continues to be — witness China’s two year battle to prevent a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” from being erected in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia. they called it: “an act of hostility towards China (meaning: the government of China).” Is it not?
Acting in anger
When people act in anger they’re often spontaneously truer to their deepest values than when they’ve had time to think about the issues. Consider China’s two reactions to the promulgation of the Bill of Rights here in Hong Kong. Their immediate (spontaneous) reaction was to say: “we’ll change it after 1997.” Their delayed (considered) reaction was: don’t’ worry about it — Hong Kong’s going to be unchanged for 50 years (or words to that effect).
Here, we have two clearly conflicting messages: only one can be right. Many people will, of course, choose to believe the message they want to hear.
But can a leopard change its spots? Or to paraphrase Deng Xiao-ping: if a black cat is better at catching rats than a red cat, can it suddenly turn into a white cat? Only with a paint job — or a snow job. Which is exactly what Deng is trying on us. But it’s purely cosmetic.
Deng Xiao-ping has blood on his hands — long before Tiananmen square. He hasn’t changed his nature and he hasn’t changed his values. Why should he? They’ve worked for him.
After Deng dies . . . ?
Everyone is waiting for Deng to die — but what will his successors do? There were several generations between Stalin and Gorbachev, and Gorbachev is hardly a resounding success. A civil war in China may not be the best thing for Hong Kong — on the other hand, you could argue that, then, Hong Kong might be left alone for a while. What we can forecast is that the people who succeed Deng Xiao-ping will be people who’ve been selected because they share very similar values. This is especially true now, after Tiananmen…the “Goddess of Democracy” caused Deng to throw out potential reformers such as Zhao Zi-yang for the reason that they could not be trusted, when push came to shove, to follow the hard line. The people in Peking now most likely to rule after Deng are those who can.
The “Goddess of Democracy” inspired a stunning reaction from the normally mute, apolitical people of Hong Kong. A million Hong Kong citizens (one-sixth of the entire population!) came out into the streets to demonstrate in favor of the students — and against Deng Xiao-ping. Now, there was no question of the Hong Kong government using tanks. For a start, they haven’t got any…but were their reactions any different in principle — that is, did their actions display a radically different set of values? — to the reactions of the blood-stained dictatorship in Peking? Consider the sequence of events.
A papier mache replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” was on display in Victoria Park for a few weeks after the massacre. The Hong Kong government gave permission for this replica to be displayed with what can only be described as reluctance. There was a proposal that this replica be moved to a permanent site; as I recall, the government’s reaction was, in part, that no suitable site could be found. This is an example of bureaucratic obstructionism.
The Hong Kong government also wanted the “Goddess of Democracy” to go away. But it waited for the public’s high level of emotion to cool down, and then it could make the “Goddess of Democracy” disappear.
Just recently, a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” from a ship of the same name owned by a Taiwanese businessman, was going to be brought to Hong Kong in time for the second anniversary of the massacre. It’s importation was delayed until it was too late to matter because, according to the government, they suspected drug smuggling and the matter had to be investigated.
Implementing China’s values
in Hong Kong
On the fundamental level of principle, the rulers of Hong Kong reacted in the same way as Deng Xiao-ping. I’m not suggesting Hong Kong’s bureaucrats actually share Deng Xiao-ping’s values: their value system is, in a sense, worse, in that they have no values at all. Their actions are determined not by moral principles but by a pragmatic issue: how China will react to whatever they do. They are eternally in the “kowtow” position with regard to China — whether there’s any need to kowtow or not. The result, of course, is that to keep China’s favor, they need to implement China’s values.
Let’s take another example: a new airport for Hong Kong to replace the already overcrowded Kai Tak. Construction should have begun years ago.
The government of Hong Kong sought China’s assent or consent to its new airport proposal. That they decided to do so — an automatic reaction for someone in the kowtow position — meant that they conceded the last word to China in advance. China objected, ostensibly on the size of the financial liability the post-1997 regime would inherit. The issue was finally resolved only by officially giving China a say in each stage of the project.
The goose or the eggs?
Here, by the way is another issue that should, surely, put paid to the idea that China doesn’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. China’s rulers don’t care about Hong Kong. If they’re willing to send tanks into Tiananmen square to kill their own defenseless citizens, why should they give a damn about Hong Kong or its people?
Again using the “Goddess of Democracy” as a lens, we can see the real values of the Peking regime. Deng Xiao-ping hoped to import western technology without also importing the ideas that made that technology possible — the ideas of freedom. The “Goddess of Democracy” illustrates dramatically the impossibility of that vain hope. To protect his values, his only resort is oppression — and the price of that oppression, in whatever terms you like to measure it, economically or socially, will be borne by the people of China, not by the rulers in Peking.
Let’s turn the old saw about the size of the Chinese market around. You know — if you could sell a box of matches to every Chinese, you’d be very wealthy. No western businessman has yet succeeded. The rulers in Peking have: anytime they want, they can take one dollar or the equivalent from every citizen — and do you think they don’t?
It’s often said that all Chinese people have a sense of history, of the long and magnificent traditions of China’s civilization. I think there’s one incident that’s foremost in the Peking ruler’s minds: that the revolution of 1911, which overthrew the dynasty, began in Canton province. To those who wish to protect the values of the communist regime, the fact that Hong Kong, with its freewheeling western style, is just a stone’s throw from Canton, is the gravest threat.
Britain and the kowtow/p>
There’s one player I’ve forgotten to mention — Britain. No doubt, Mrs. Thatcher expressed outrage at the massacre. I don’t recall but she’s good at that. But consider this: who is ultimately responsible for the government of Hong Kong? The government of Britain. I’ve already noted that the Hong Kong government assumes the kowtow position whenever China is mentioned: how can we conclude anything except that this position is fully and completely endorsed by the government of Britain? Whether consciously or by default, what’s the difference?
This is also dramatized by the airport issue: British Prime Minister John Major assumed the kowtow position alongside Hong Kong’s governor Sir David Wilson when they announced, together, that a new airport for Hong Kong would “probably be postponed indefinitely.” At least, that’s how I saw the photograph of them, side-by-side, on the front page of The South China Morning Post [June 26th, 1991]. The British lion has lost its roar, at least in the face of the Chinese dragon.
Like the government of Hong Kong, the government of Britain does not share Deng Xiao-ping’s value system (we’ll assume that for the sake of argument). Rather, their attitude towards Hong Kong is determined pragmatically by a different priority or value: that of the Sino-British relations. If the freedom of the people of Hong Kong is to be sacrificed on the “altar” of Sino-British relations, well, that’s tough.
Britain’s legacy of blood
Britain’s legacy to its former colonies is not a pretty one. It’s easy to call a demagogue like Idi Amin an aberration — even though he learnt his craft at Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point). What’s little appreciated is that the relative freedom enjoyed in British colonies before independence was not due to British laws — passed on, intact, to the ex-colonies’ new rulers — but to the gentlemanly restraint (or “benign neglect”) with which the British had administered those laws.
For example: prior to and during the brief period of Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship of India, she jailed her opponents without trial. The law she used was the law the British had passed so they could jail Mahatma Gandhi!
China’s promise to leave Hong Kong unchanged for 50 years should not be comforting…as Commissar of Hong Kong in 1997, I could turn Hong Kong into a totalitarian state without changing one single law. I’d simply continue to do what the Hong Kong government does — as it did, for example, in delaying the importation of the statue of the “Goddess of Democracy.” That is, use existing laws for political ends…with much greater tenacity and purpose.
Don’t think it can’t be done. Everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was entirely legal according to the constitution of the Weimar Republic. That includes sending Jews and others to the gas chamber. How, when there were certain rights written in that constitution to protect individuals? Hitler just changed the interpretation. For example, he redefined the words “human beings” so that Jews and anyone else he didn’t like were no longer included in that definition. Of course, it helped him that nobody was ever going to challenge his reinterpretation.
Freedom and the
Commissar of Hong Kong
Let’s say I’m commissar of Hong Kong, and I don’t like something The South China Morning Post has published in today’s issue. All Hong Kong property is subject to zoning laws, so by edict I rezone the Post’s building in Quarry Bay residential. It is no longer legal to use that site for industry — including, unfortunately, the printing of a newspaper.
No doubt, there are many ways the Post could challenge that ruling. I used this example in a “role-play” demonstration shortly after the Joint Declaration was announced. The first time, I had a gweilo (i.e., Caucasian) friend primed to act as the lawyer. He advised his “client” to fight this ruling. At 3am the next morning, representatives of the ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption — a special (effectively secret) police body with extraordinary powers] knocked on his door and spirited him away. The ICAC can hold anyone for 48 hours without charging them and without habeas corpus available to the prisoner — as Commissar of Hong Kong I don’t need a new law when there’s already one on the books. Then, of course, he simply disappeared from view — as Commissar I don’t have to obey the law — and there was suddenly one more “Vietnamese refugee” in the Whitehead concentration camp. I mean — Whitehead detention center. Everything’s already in place — except the gas chambers.
After that, the Post was unable to find another lawyer to represent it on this issue.
The second time I did this demonstration — to a group of MBA graduates from Hong Kong University, all of them local Hong Kong Chinese — the lawyer who volunteered to participate in the role play gave this spontaneous reaction: “I’d advise my client to look into the possibilities of residential real estate.” The kowtow position is not confined to Hong Kong’s British rulers.
The newly-passed Bill of Rights is irrelevant — if no one is willing or able to fight for their rights.
“Fight or flight”?
The majority of Hong Kong’s people have chosen “flight” rather than “fight” — an entirely rational decision in my view. Around half of Hong Kong’s people either fled or have a parent who fled the communist regime. They know what to expect. And when the Hong Kong government takes the same attitude — and the people are politically powerless — what else can you expect?
Who, in Hong Kong, is fighting for the principles embodied in the Statue of Liberty? No one. The closest approximation is rising politician Martin Lee who as a lawyer, emphasizes the importance of the “rule of law.” However, “the rule of law,” of itself, is about implementation of laws rather than the content of those laws. And there is another problem, far more serious in my view: that come 1997 there are unlikely to be enough qualified judges to maintain the British-style legal system in Hong Kong. Few Hong Kong Chinese lawyers wish to sit on the bench, partly because they get paid a hell of a lot less than they can make in private practice; and partly because they’re justifiably afraid of what might happen to a judge whose job it is to enforce the law, and so make rulings that China will inevitably dislike.
As someone who was one involved in the rough and tumble of Australian politics, I can only describe politics in Hong Kong as amateur hour. This is not necessarily a bad thing — professional politicians are certainly a greater curse on society than amateurs. But if you study the actions of those people pushing themselves forward into Hong Kong’s growing political life, I think you’ll easily see that the overwhelming majority of them are transparently jockeying for Peking’s favor as a promise of things-to-come post-1997. This naturally accompanies the kowtow position.
The attitude of Hong Kong’s business leaders is perhaps, best exposed in the suggestion of shipping magnate Sir Y. Pao: that Hong Kong should be run like a corporation — with, himself as chairman. Most other members of Hong Kong’s business elite differ on one major point: who should be chairman of the board. My reaction: I’d like to be able to trade this stock so I can sell it short.
Voting with your feet
Significant numbers of Hong Kong people are taking the political equivalent of selling short: voting with their feet. Indeed, projecting the current rate of emigration into the future, by about 1994 or 1995 there’ll be no accountants or lawyers or other professionals left in Hong Kong. More seriously, emigration from Hong Kong is leaking away the city’s very energy: middle management and small businessmen — the entrepreneurs, the would be Li Ka-shings who, unlike Hong Kong’s richest man [who escaped from China, penniless], do not have sufficient wealth to protect themselves except by taking their business with them. These are the people who make Hong Kong the dynamic place it is. So, by 1997 the very nature of Hong Kong will have changed, before China takes over.
Ironically, China was the pace-setter in making a peaceful change from communism to capitalism: China set the example that, I believe, the countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself should follow. Deng Xiao-ping himself initiated a process of change that caused, in the late ’70s and 1980s, the fastest rate of economic growth in China’s history. He made this possible (rather than “achieved it”) not by central planning but by its exact opposite: getting the government out of the way at the “micro” level, the level of the individual.
Perestroika bought political freedom in advance of economic freedom. It brought democracy to parts of Russia and eastern Europe. But it has yet to produce significant economic change — because it has not brought economic freedom. The result, in the Soviet Union, is socialism at the level of the republics instead of nationally, with the potential for civil war that that entails.
By allowing individuals to set up a shop on their own account, and then allowing them to employ others, Deng Xiao-ping unleashed a torrent of human energy and an explosion of wealth. Thousands then hundreds of thousands of small business grew in China, with some people becoming very rich in the process. Of course, with economic freedom came the demand for political freedom — and the “Goddess of Democracy.”
When political freedom comes to China — as it eventually will — there will be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of experienced entrepreneurs, ready and able to take over state-run industries and make them profitable. China’s final transition from communism to capitalism will be relatively fast and painless. Capitalism is growing in China, even without political freedom.
In Russia, the process is happening in reverse, also with chaotic results. There, people are seeking “macro” solutions: for example, attempting to privatize state industries when there are no capital markets. And no entrepreneurial managers. It is pointless to seek advice from Wall Street experts, or the Fed, as Russia has done, when what’s necessary is thousands of home-grown entrepreneurs. And they can only flower when restrictions on the individual are removed — when the government just gets out of the way.
Another example from recent history is West Germany. In 1949, Konrad Adenaur lifted all price controls and similar restrictions on individual enterprise. In a matter of months, British soldiers were going home with suitcases packed full of foodstuffs and similar items in abundance in Germany but in continued short supply in socialist Britain.
I realize I’m painting a very pessimistic picture. It’s often easier to see all the risks in any course of action than the benefits — and when all those risks are highlighted together, the future can seem very bleak indeed. At the same time, the bleakness of the “worst possible future” is a consequence of the number of risks there are. Only by facing reality can you hope succeed there — anything else is fantasy.
Can Hong Kong’s freedoms
And by focusing on the reality, we can find the only mechanism that will provide some surety of Hong Kong remaining free after 1997: to replace, in Hong Kong, the symbol of the “Goddess of Democracy” with the symbol of the Statue of Liberty.
Hong Kong’s political future is established. It is probably beyond the power of any agency to change — bar China itself. But what is within Hong Kong’s power? And within the power of its people to change? To change the laws a potential Commissar of Hong Kong can use to turn Hong Kong into a police state. They can be abolished now — if enough people in Hong Kong demand it.
But understand what is likely to happen. The majority of people may agree in principle that such laws should be repealed — but when it comes to individual laws, many voices will be raised in favor of keeping this or that specific one. For example, the censorship of movies — essential, we will be told, to protect the morals of the young. Whenever such considerations take precedence over freedom, it is the freedom to see any movies that is in danger of being lost.
Examples of such short-sightedness are easy to find. Around the time the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong’s future was announced, the Archbishop of Hong Kong and Macau returned from Peking with a message that religious freedom would be protected after 1997. Of course, he was naive enough to believe what he wanted to hear. But he also failed to understand that religious freedom is merely a subset of freedom of thought, and without freedom of thought religious freedom is not guaranteed.
Unfortunately, as I said, no one in Hong Kong is fighting for liberty. And while the process is straightforward — the abolition of all laws restricting freedom — we can be sure, that were such movement to arise, Hong Kong’s bureaucrats will fight tooth and nail to keep every single restriction on the books.
The Pope and capitalism
In conclusion, I’d like to point to the most promising indicator, in my mind, that freedom and capitalism will eventually triumph all around the world. I’m not referring to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, but to Pope John Paul’s recent encyclical, almost unreservedly endorsing capitalism as the preferred social system for the benefit of mankind.
The Catholic Church is almost 2,000 years old; possibly the longest-lived institution in human history. It rose to prominence by becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, adopting, in the process, “pagan” Roman festivals like Christmas (the celebration of the “rebirth of the sun” — i.e., the shortest day of the year). The Catholic Church came to prominence, and remained prominent, and thrived, by being ideologically flexible.
I interpret Pope John Paul’s encyclical in two ways: as a recognition of reality, long overdue; and as the surest indication of which way the winds of history are blowing.