Two Approaches to Bargaining: Democratisation in the late 20th Century

38th May 20, 2020

As our movement against tyranny enters a new phase, many have called for gearing up the minds of our fellow protestors. To emphasise on it, I will introduce ideas from academic literature, and offer points of reflection in fitting these accounts into Hong Kong’s context. While it is far from the most comprehensive and in-depth review and analysis, I sincerely hope that this would spark a spirited and well-rooted discussion in the community.

Democratisation as a Bargain

The shadow of China has loomed over Hong Kong’s democratisation for the past years. From the August 31 decision in 2014, the “second echelons of governance”, and the recent re-interpretation of Article 22 of the Basic Law, Beijing has taken control of Hong Kong’s politics beneath the façade of “One Country Two Systems.”

Focusing on interactions between Hong Kong and Beijing, a “bargain” between the two will be inevitable. In regards to bargaining for democracy, Bunce’s “Rethinking Recent Democratisation: Lessons from the Postcommunist Experience” may shed some light on our possible approaches to this fight for freedom.

Reducing Uncertainty in Democratisation

In the article, Bunce posits that as democratisation is a bargain between authoritarian leaders and a democratic opposition, it is most preferred to settle the terms of a new democracy in greater certainty. To this end, two approaches have led to success: that of Latin American states, and of the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

In Latin America, successes were built by limiting the bargaining process to a small group of representatives of the democratic opposition, demobilising the public and setting up arrangements that were agreed upon by both sides. By removing mass sentiments, Latin American democrats were given greater freedom to maneuver against the threat of military takeovers. Similar to the “platform-building” and “peaceful rally” practices of traditional pan-democrats, this method works best under a threat of a powerful actor, which in Hong Kong’s case is China.

However, in Eastern Europe, successes were built by strategies of mass mobilisation, which reduced uncertainty by signalling a complete breakdown of an authoritarian order. As democrats gained a mandate for radical change, authoritarian leaders were pushed to the bargaining table. Mass mobilisation was thus used to provide strength to demand democracy, leading to a transition that concerned less about appeasing authoritarian interests. This method of non-compromise and continued conflict between authoritarian leaders and the masses would be similar to the new idea of “Phoenixism”, signifying a mass-based, radical change.

Constraints, Contexts and Strategies

As the approaches of Latin America and Eastern Europe ran parallel to the difference of approach in Hong Kong, it must be considered which approach would better suit the contexts of our city.

In Latin America, the approach of flexibility and genuine negotiations were made in the context of a strong military threat, which unwavering power meant the position of the military must be considered if the newborn democracy was not to be overturned by a bloody coup. While the CCP’s strong military threat of the People’s Liberation Army stands, we must then question the possibility of such a negotiation taking place in Hong Kong. After 30 years of negotiations, have our pan-democratic representatives not been given enough room for maneuver to bargain a deal for a democratic transition? Or is it simply that Beijing would never agree to any deal?

We then turn to the approach of radicalism and mass mobilisation in Eastern Europe. As Bruce puts it, while this approach would guarantee a larger victory, it is also more likely that authoritarian rule would continue. To achieve the success of Eastern Europe, bottom-up support for Hong Kong Nationalism and radical alternatives such as independence must be solidly founded; a united democratic movement must also forge a unified popular mandate and basis of resources. We must also remember the context of Eastern Europe’s democratisation: the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the power vacuum it left behind. If this radical approach is to work, it would have to be under an alternative reality of China’s implosion, leaving the HKSAR regime with no chip on the table.

Asking the Right Questions

While this is only one way of contrasting these two approaches to democratisation, we must ask ourselves: which one are we fighting for? Or can the formation of popular will to radical change co-exist with the flexible delegation of representatives to bargain? The answer to these questions, I believe, would be best left for all Hongkongers to decide.

In whatever way we achieve democracy, I am hopeful: for people as determined and wise as us, Hong Kong will find a way, and Hong Kong will thrive.


Reference: Bunce (2003) Rethinking Recent Democratization: Lessons from the Postcommunist Experience



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