From Falklands to Hong Kong, a brief look at our contemporary world

Published by  (blog) on February 7, 2012.
Tensions arise as this year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Falklands War, a colony hard fought to remain British. This reminds me of a former British colony, surrendered and returned without any fighting – my homeland – Hong Kong.
In 1841, Hong Kong was sacrificed as a colony to Britain as a result of the Qing Empire’s defeat in the Opium War. No doubt, it was a humiliating event, and it remains so for many Chinese even today. They wished the war had never happened; if only China was not the weak, corrupted and fragmented empire it was. However, with the hindsight of history we can see how, had China won, Hong Kong could never have become the miracle it is. Whilst Hong Kong transformed itself from a fishing port to a key trading centre, China, just a river’s width away, underwent a series of revolutions, coups and political struggles resulting in chronic instability. As the communist flag flew sky-high in Beijing,  American, British and Chinese businessmen flocked to Hong Kong, the closest possible haven.
Under British rule, Hong Kong retained a culture of its own, where East met West, and where economic freedom and capitalism was the norm. It was a city transformed, yet it was never a democracy. Politics was the business of the foreigners – British colonials. Appointments directed to involve more ethnically Chinese in politics were made later, only as a response to the left-wing riots of 1967. Efforts towards a democratic Hong Kong were made by the last governor, a skilful Conservative politician, Chris Pattern, who only found himself in a tug of war with Chinese officials, who reversed his plans once Hong Kong was handed over in 1997.
This raises the question: Are capitalism and democracy really twins by default?
At the end of the Cold War, people in the West cheered, declaring the victory of capitalism over communism, and democracy over dictatorship. The 1990s saw the peak of the capitalist democratic fever. Former Soviet states were desperate to be free and to prosper, to lose state control on individuals and the economy. On the face of it, America and the allies triumphed, and so did their ideology: capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand and neither could work without the other. Even the socialist parties accepted the free market. Just take a look at the City of London under Labour, a tax haven enlarged by the day. And what about China? The communist state that once conducted strict economic planning, now embraces supply side economics. Though they liked to call it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, in reality it was (and is) capitalism with authoritarian characteristics.
Chinese capitalism challenges the inseparable connection between market and democracy. It is possible, as many Chinese would say, to be a free person without a free vote. “Why do we have to change our government?” Said one Chinese young woman interviewed by the BBC in Beijing. This post-communist generation relied not on democracy to become the rich and successful individuals that they are now, but the opportunity and freedom to do business. Perhaps this is a strange idea to those of us who firmly believe in the grand vision of a democratic world, but when you are poor and hungry, bread comes before democracy. Common sense, really.
Today, European economies stall and cripple to revive. Even the United States, still the world’s largest economy, has yet to recover fully. Meanwhile, President Obama and President Sarkozy are busy seeking re-election, while President Hu of China steadily prepares his hand over to his deputy. As the Twenty-First Century recognises capitalism, does it also mark the decline of democracy? Asking this question does not make me an authoritarian; I am a liberal. But we need a reality check. There is no credible alternative to capitalism, but there is one to democracy in our contemporary world. Although the Arab Spring shines a light on democratic progress, how many of the new-born democracies are going to survive? If they fail to prosper in the crumbling capitalist democratic world, I fear they will take the Chinese route of authoritarian capitalism.
On the eve of our democratic era, let us remember every sacrifice made by the warriors in the Falklands, for they protected not only the citizens of Falklands, but their dignity and democracy.

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