As Arthur Waldron has written, the election of Anson Chan to LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislature, was an important victory for democracy in the city, a special administrative region of China. Chan took her seat yesterday after beating Regina Ip, the candidate favored by the Chinese government, in Sunday’s landslide win. The race was especially symbolic because both Chan and Ip sought to fill a vacancy created by the death of Ma Lik. Ma was the head of the misnamed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s main pro-Beijing party.
Not surprisingly, Beijing’s friends attacked Chan moments after she was sworn in. Tsang Tak-sing, Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs, launched a personal attack on the new lawmaker, calling her a “sudden democrat” who cares little for the livelihood of the people of the city. Tsang, by the way, is the brother of a past chairman of the Democratic Alliance.
It’s clear that Mainland leaders not only want the LegCo seat back, they need to eliminate Chan from politics. Her electoral win is not only a victory for democracy in Hong Kong, it is threatening to the rulers of the modern Chinese state. And unfortunately for Beijing, her presence in the legislature undermines a core assumption of the Communist Party of China. Ever since the early 1990’s, Chinese officials have been betting that continual economic growth will keep them in power. Yet Hong Kong’s strong economy this decade did not translate into sufficient support at the polls for the pro-Beijing Ip.
Moreover, Chan’s victory also undercuts an emerging trend in Western thinking. Due to the apparent success of present-day Communism in China, political scientists are beginning to believe that authoritarian is a sustainable form of governance. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, for instance, is no friend of Communism, but he now talks of “resilient authoritarianism.” Dozens of analysts have picked up on this theme and doubt the link between economic progress and democratization. Francis Fukuyama’s seminal End of History is now ridiculed.
Yet Anson Chan’s victory reminds political scientists that real people do not think prosperity is a substitute for representative governance. The academics and analysts should remember their Tocqueville. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution he wrote that sustained prosperity does not tranquilize a citizenry. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”
So we are all in debt to Chan, dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience,” for reminding us that repressive governments are never as strong as they appear. Yesterday was a good moment for the people of Hong Kong—and for the rest of us as well.