Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

Invective

April 19, 2016

I listened last week to two important people extol the many virtues of Hong Kong, and insist how the future success of this semi-autonomous enclave of China was guaranteed because of the tenacity and entrepreneurship of the people that live here, plus of course the robustness of the legal and financial system.

One of these people was John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary. The other was Stuart Gulliver, chief executive officer of HSBC.

They used phases such as “the highly-developed legal system and a heavy concentration of skilled professionals means that Hong Kong will be too far advanced… to be displaced [by China]” (Gulliver) and “Hong Kong’s success is built upon the rule of law [and] the persistence in upholding economic freedom, an extensive business network, sound financial infrastructure, a robust regulatory regime, [and] a well educated and resourceful workforce” (Tsang).

The problem was that such comments – which was what you would expect both of the parties to say – were overshadowed by the most eloquent speaker that went before them: Tsim Tak Luk, chairman of the Project Citizens Foundation, writer and intellectual.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that, to be honest, neither Tsang nor Gulliver proved to be particularly good speakers. Okay, I’ll accept that for Tsang English isn’t his first language. And, with the Sunday Times preparing to publish a story on Sunday about how Gulliver was for the chop in two years time, the HSBC CEO may have had other things on his mind.

But still they could have given a more robust defence against Luk’s invective.

Luk used such confrontational rhetoric as “Hong Kong is a city of broken promises, and the Hong Kong people is a people misruled” and “We have seen instead plenty of examples of mediocre people making dumb decisions for I don’t know whose benefit”.

Not perhaps the best choice of words when you are trying to introduce a member of the government that, in none too subtle a way, you are hell bent on criticising.

Luk pulled no punches when he spoke about Beijing: “Before 1997, the then sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen of England & the United Kingdom, was affectionately referred to as The Proprietress. After 1997, the new sovereign in Beijing is referred to, also affectionately, as The Grandfather. And the difference is this – the Proprietress left you alone to go about your business provided you made money for her, whereas the Grandfather loves to give orders and broaches no arguments.”

Grandfather does not always know best, said Luk, especially not high finance (the thought of making a reference about what happened to markets in China cannot have been far away from his mind).

The fear in Hong Kong is palpable – and Luk’s comments embodied perfectly the sentiments that I am hearing an increasing number of local Hong Kongers express: China needs to move carefully for the future success of Hong Kong to be guaranteed.

This fear didn’t go away as Hong Kong protestors closed their umbrellas at the end of 2014. It is still very much there, and with this being an election year, expect it to resurface in some form or another. Joshua Wong, the poster boy from the 2014 protests, has just launched his own political party.

I tend to see Beijing as largely pragmatic. I think many in the West do. If they’re making money they are happy, and they don’t want to derail Hong Kong’s success just for the sake of doing so.

But there is a danger here that many are increasingly sensing.

Luk concluded: “As we survey the current political landscape in Hong Kong, it is obvious that the politicization, polarization and radicalization of Hong Kong politics – and their relentless escalation – is the number one cause for concern… As Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of NPC said, the intelligent Hong Kong people will be able to find their own solution. If this is true, Hong Kong’s political risk goes down several notches, and our Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang’s bullish scenario may come to pass. But if the reverse is true, and Beijing chooses outright confrontation – the sledgehammer approach – then we are only one riot away from Hong Kong’s own June 4th  moment.”

This last was a reference to the terrible Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Which sounds bad to me. To be avoided at all costs.

Beijing has more sense these days.

One hopes.

Democracy. Pah.

November 10, 2011

So. Two European leaders have fallen in the space of a week. George Papandreou of Greece. And Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. It was probably inevitable.

Well, Silvio Berlusconi probably won’t be too missed. Sure, he had a core base of support – that was, after all, why he kept getting elected. But this core base was weakening all the time. The rest of the free world tended to regard him as rather a joke. I never ever met an Italian abroad that had any time for the guy. Either these Italians were terrific actors or they really were running away from their country because of the man in charge.

And George Papandreou? Well, the world probably wouldn’t have known who the fellow was if Greece hadn’t been thrown centre stage by appalling economic misfortune. He’s gone. Few will shed a tear.

And in their place?

Well, here come the technocrats…

The question is: is this a good thing?

The elected politicians have so effectively buggered things up that one is tempted to think that, yes, appointing unelected officials to the countries of Greece and Italy might actually not be a bad idea. Perhaps Spain, Portugal and Ireland could do with a dose of this too. Hell, how about my own country, the UK, how about having unelected officials telling us how to run our lives? That would be neat. Especially if they stick two fingers up to the Conservatives and Lib Dems and tell people that, actually, as a matter of fact, education is important and screw all you hypocritical suits who want to deny a free choice of education to the masses.

It looks as though Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner, might form one of the central planks of Italy’s technocratic government. I’m finding it hard to resist clapping my hands together and exclaiming “yay!”, which would be highly unprofessional.

Having covered competition policy in Brussels for a couple of years, I know Mario Monti reasonably well. I know how he works. I interviewed him on countless occasions. Out of all the commissioners I ever saw whilst in Brussels, it is Sig. Monti that I hold in highest regard. Throughout his five year tenure, not once did I see him falter. Not once did he waver in the face of unfavourable press coverage. He simply kept his head down and got on with the job that had to be done, which is namely to make sure there is a favourable and open playing field for everyone in Europe. Never once did I see him try to glorify his position. He did what had to be done. Yes, I have tremendous respect for Sr Monti.

I might point out here that, within the European Union, the competition policy is the most powerful dossier to have. In actual fact, the Competition Commissioner could even be considered more powerful than the President of the Commission. This is because most decisions within the Competition Directorate are not subject to codecision procedure. They do not need to be approved by the European Parliament or the Council. Whatever the Competition Commissioner says – subject to approval by fellow Commissioners, who usually wave things through – goes.

This makes perfect sense. It removes politics from the whole process. Imagine if approval for state aid was subjected to the same political wrangling that we usually see within the European Parliament and Council. Or if cartels were built and destroyed on the whims of member states. Europe just wouldn’t function at all. This is why carte blanche is given to the EU’s Competition Commissioner. And Sig. Monti performed the job admirably.

Is this what we need in those EU member states, like Greece and Italy, that have squandered the wealth of their citizens? Some level-headed technocrat, appointed at the whim of Germany, and who can sort are sorry mess out.

I would say that this is an extremely dangerous precedent and points to all that is wrong with the EU.

For all it’s obvious shortcomings, democracy is one of the greatest strengths that Europe has. If we don’t like what a politician is doing, then all we have to do is turn up at the ballot box and vote him (or her) out of office. The entire world might criticise Berlusconi for being such a womanising clown, but the point is that he was voted into office in a free-and-fair election. Of course, as my Italian wife might point out, democracy only works so far. Berlusconi is no doubt able to dazzle the public through his wealth and glamour. His media empire helps a great deal, too.

But, at the end of the day, European voters aren’t stupid. Politicians might think they are, but they aren’t. Just because me and my wife (and just about every Italian I meet) think Berlusconi a clown, doesn’t mean that this is representative of what the Italian population as a whole thinks. It just, unfortunately, reflects the circles that we move in. People are voting for Berlusconi in large numbers. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been in office.

I don’t read the Sun. That doesn’t mean that the Sun, the bestselling newspaper in the UK, is inherently wrong. It just means that I am out of touch with the way that most people in Britain think.

Are you seeing where I am going with this blog entry yet?

Is it really right for a small break-away community of European countries, led by Germany, to force an unelected government on Italy? Even if one of the Italians that I admire the most in the whole world would play a key role?

Democracy may not be great. It may have more gaping holes than a wedge of Swiss Cheese.

But right now it is all we have. So please don’t take it away from us.

More thoughts on Libya

March 11, 2011

This is probably an entry that I’m not qualified to write, and so I am just going to throw open a question and draw no firm conclusion.

It’s about Libya again, which is still very much on people’s minds at the moment, and some people have even started talking about the situation in their sleep (apparently). The latest murmurings from nod land were, I am informed, something about Colonel Gadaffi having to go. This was shortly followed by a rather less coherent message along the lines of: the polar bears will sort it all out.

A disclosure that perhaps, upon reflection, might have been better kept to myself.

This blog entry was partially inspired by coverage of the meeting of European leaders in Brussels today. Whilst the general theme of the meeting was tightening up sanctions on Gaddafi and family, the subtle under-tone that the BBC was reporting seemed to be that none of the leaders wanted to push things too far because at the moment there seems to be a very good chance that, once the dust settles, the regime will remain intact. And they’re still going to have to deal with that bloody Colonol.

Gone, it seems, are the giddy Churchillian days of heroic voyages across the high seas to rescue states that are succumbing to the hand of tyranny. We haven’t launched such rescues now for many-a-decade, and some might very well be thankful that we haven’t.

Which brings me on to the real point of this blog entry: to what extent are we, as the international community, entitled to meddle in the affairs of Libya, which still very much remains a sovereign state? Or another variation of the question could be: to what extent do we have a duty to meddle in its affairs?

I have no answer. Nor am I trying to form any firm conclusions, for the question seems just too complex to rationalise. But I can end this blog entry with two quick thoughts.

First, perhaps the best way of tackling such questions is to consider those things that remain true wherever one is in the world. I’m not sure that the benefits of democracy is one of them. But the sanctity of human life certainly is.

The second thought comes from my time in Sudan. If there’s one thing that I learnt during the two years I spent there, it is that the higher moral ground wielded by rebel groups is often highly dubious. True, some people get caught up in the message that the rebels send out, and truly believe that what they are fighting and dying for is just. But what lies at the core of most rebel groups that I have come across is an insatiable thirst for power.

The future of the media

September 29, 2008

As a committed, lightly seasoned journalist a fair way (I hope) from retirement, I must confess to being somewhat dismayed when ever I read pessimistic articles about the decline of the media industry. After assiduously reading such articles, I find myself drawing deeply upon my mug of cappucino and wistfully casting my mind back to the 1970s, when I was but a wee toddler. The days of Fleet Street, when surely journalism was a much finer profession to be in. Much more of a challenge, much less prone to plagerism, and much much better paid. When editors thought nothing of letting even the most junior of reporters charter a jet, if the story was juicy enough. Journalism just seemed so much sexier back then. I’ve seen the movies.

Now, of course, the explosion of the Internet and the prevalence of junky though free newspaper has somewhat undermined the predominance of established outlets such as The Times or The Telegraph.

This seems to have led to an industry-wide cult of mourning, which just drags on and on. Now, on any given day, open the business pages of a mainstream newspaper and most of the stories are going to centre on one of two things: the callous way in which the financial industry has dealt with other people’s money, leading to the ugly mess the world’s economy is in at the moment; or how, by the year 2020, the newspaper industry will be effectively dead. It is as though business journalists have this great desire to write their own epitaph – either that or to persuade the world what forward-thinking journos they really are, to accept that traditional media is no more.

We all know that we were due for a recession – and the shrewd among us knew that creating money without a quality product was never going to work in the long-run. We can weather this storm.

But the decline of the newspaper industry seems a much more worrying eventuality.

In a lovely self-written epitaph that I recently read in the Observer, one newspaper commentator praised the Internet for freeing journalists’ stranglehold on information (after all, why should they be the only ones privy to information, which they can choose how to disseminate?) and for creating an open forum for debate.

But I would argue against this viewpoint, and not only because my livelihood depends on the public not having free access to information. My argument is very simple, and is one that I wish I was hearing more. It is truly great that the Internet provides a forum for wider debate, and prevents people from having a monopoly on information. However, this is rather like the average Joe Bloggs looking up information on the Internet for how to put out a fire or how to perform open-heart surgery. Firemen are trained to tackle fires. Surgeons are trained to perform surgery. The same is true of journalists.

It is all very well to say that personal blogs and Internet forums are doing a fine job at disseminating information, but most people that keep blogs or administer forums do not know the first thing about news-gathering. Sure, they have good opinions and often often write very well, but understanding what news means? Well…

But I, too, am an optimist. I believe that the upheaval journalism is going through at the moment is a good thing. It means, for one thing, that a lot of the dead-wood the industry is dragging around at the moment can be got rid of. It means that journalists must think much harder about how they can add value to what the public knows already. It may even give rise to a new wave of investigative journalism – which has been sorely lacking recently, as celebrity gossip has been disappointingly winning column inches from more important news, even from the broadsheets. As one media commentor, Wolff, recently wrote: “[the current newspaper editors] are fucking imbeciles. They deserve it [the decline of the newspaper industry] and they deserve it in a profound way.”

Wolff, though, is one of those that believe in the 2020 armagedon. I am not so certain. I like to think that, after the dust has cleared, we will have a much more robust media industry – and one where good journalism takes pride of place, and traditional newspapers exists happily alongside the Internet (both sites that charge a fee for news and the inevitably lower-quality free sites that are essential for fostering democratic and open debate).

(I should be back in Sudan within a couple of weeks – ready to update this blog with the goings-on in that particular part of the world)

Pitfalls of democracy

August 19, 2008

It’s funny how old ideas and viewpoints, which were all the rage not so long ago, rapidly die out over the generations and become rather unsavoury.

One such as these lies tucked away at the back of my great-grandfather’s autobiography, which I had a quick skim through over the weekend. George Heaton Nicholls (link only available in Afrikaans, I’m afraid) was a South African diplomat who was somewhat attached to imperialism (an evil word these days).

He wrote his autobiography when he was in his eighties. I don’t have the book in front of me – since it was the only copy, I left it where it was – but the general thrust of what he was saying was that democracy should be applied very cautiously in Africa. It is dangerous to give the vote to idiots, I think was one of the sentences, implying that Africans basically couldn’t be trusted to act responsibly.

Obviously, looking at the context of things (in the 1960s), he was writing this from a rather self-centred way. He knew that the whiteman’s world was likely to blow apart in the country if the majority blacks wielded the same one-person one-vote as the white’s did, and of course this is exactly what happened. He argued that the one-person one-vote idea was ridiculous, and should have a more appropriate weighting, where the intelligence of the votee was also considered.

All pretty outrageous remarks in today’s perpetually politically correct world. But, if one looks harder, one can find the threads of a sensible argument. He was suggesting that, in cases where full-blown democracy would result in the larger group having an undue sway over the minorities and lead to an abuse of power, then it should not be deployed – or at least it should be taylored to fit.

It’s funny how these words are so grating to the ears (surely, democracy is a fine thing and we should all be proud that we live in such a democratic society), but actually, when one looks at the sorry state that Africa has got itself into, such sentiments don’t appear quite so ridiculous. Most countries in Africa are run so clearly along tribal lines, with the strongest and usually most populace tribe weilding the lion’s share of power, that one can’t help wondering if he might not have been on to something.

Democracy in Africa is a charade: it always seems to lead to the bullying of the minority by the majority.