Capitalism vs. Democracy in Hong Kong

"To get rich is glorious" -Deng XiaopingAccording to The Washington Times (7/1), "God himself wept" when Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China. The claim from the Moonie-owned newspaper may seem hyperbolic, but as we all know, God is a Republican, or, in this case, a Tory. Given that unassailable fact, it naturally follows that the Almighty would blubber uncontrollably on seeing one of capitalism's mighty citadels handed to the Communists. But neither the Anglo nor the American business party has much cause for concern. Capitalism seems safe in Hong Kong, which is to say that the economic rights of the upper echelons are safe, even if the citizens' political rights are headed for the dustbin of history. The distinction between political and economic rights is an important one, and it was comforting to see in the media coverage of Hong Kong's transition from British to Chinese rule that many of us have finally learned the difference. During the Cold War it was commonly held that economic rights were political rights, that democracy and capitalism were the same thing. This was one of the century's great propaganda victories, the result of decades of rabid anti-Bolshevik indoctrination. Unfortunately the old Cold War myth seems to have been replaced by a newer model. The latest version holds that economic rights are not the same as political rights, but that - Oh brave new world - the former will lead inexorably to the latter. It was difficult to find a story on Hong Kong's transition that didn't make this dubious claim. The general thesis is that capitalism in Hong Kong, and in southeastern China in general, will eventually pave the way for democracy. For now, however, political rights in Hong Kong are toast, as we are already abundantly aware. Every media outlet in the land has harped on the fact that the Communists have disbanded Hong Kong's elected legislature. But these expressions of concern for the political rights of Hong Kong seem a bit opportunistic. Conveniently left out of the hand-wringing is the fact that the elected legislature was a recent development. Chris Patten, the last British governor, began introducing limited democratic reforms in the 1980s, and the suddenly famous elected legislature wasn't seated until 1995. As Patten admitted, his efforts brought democracy in Hong Kong to the middle of the 19th century. That remember, is about when the British nabbed Hong Kong and set about establishing Her Majesty's opium ring. The actual year was 1841. And for nearly the next century and a half the British ruled its colony with nary a nod to democratic principles. Colonies, after all, are about gathering loot, not about democracy. Democratic principles became an issue only after the British agreed to hand the colony to a regime that was certain to violate those principles. And the agreement itself was certainly not the result of any democratic process. In the matter of the reversion to China, Britain didn't bother to ask those most affected. Most residents were understandably opposed to the transition. No matter: Hong Kong was handed from one empire to another rather the way Tanganyika was handed from Germany to Britain after World War I. Or the way Cuba was handed from Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American War. There has been little change in the imperial arrogance that views the world as parcels of real estate to be bought, sold, traded, fought over, and ruled, with minimal regard for the inhabitants. Britain's belated concern for the political freedoms of her subjects in Hong Kong should be seen as the cynical ploy it surely was. Democracy was introduced so that the communists could snuff it out. The cynicism found its way to Washington as well. In 1992 Congress passed the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which offers kind words of support to political freedoms and requires the president to submit regularly reports on the state of liberty in Hong Kong. This, like the British introduction of democracy, was done in anticipation of communist rule. The defenders of liberty on Capitol Hill weren't noticeably bothered when Hong Kong was beneath the British boot. Political oppression by Western powers doesn't merit Uncle Sam's outrage; rather it often merits his support. But oppression by the arch-enemy can never be denounced with sufficient vituperation. Washington's sudden mercies for Hong Kong fit into a familiar pattern. Political dissidents who struggled against communism are seen, quite rightly, as heroes. Political dissidents who struggled against the French, British, or American empires were branded communists and jailed or killed. Compare, for example, Lech Walesa's stature in Washington with that of his counterpart trade unionists in Latin America. The Latin Americans will never be accorded heroes' welcomes in Washington; the best they can hope for is to avoid torture at the hands of the assassins we employ to keep democracy at bay in our sphere of influence. Democracy is a goner in Hong Kong, but the capitalists have little to worry about. The new Beijing-vetted chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, is a shipping tycoon. His advisors are drawn from corporate and financial circles. Tung's advisor on education policy, for example, is a Chase Manhattan managing director. The International Herald Tribune said of Tung and his advisors, "to them, democracy seems a secondary concern to efficiency and results." They have claimed, in fact to favor capitalism Singapore-style: efficient and oppressive. And it is here we see most clearly that democracy and capitalism are not the same but are instead often at odds. Singapore is, according The Wall Street Journal, the second freest economy on the planet. It is also famously authoritarian. Capitalism and tyranny co-exist marvelously there, just as they have for so many years in so many other despotic hells, from Somoza's Nicaragua, to Mobutu's Zaire, to the Shah's Iran to Suharto's Indonesia. We forget how the capitalist class in this country admired the fascists, especially Mussolini, for their strong-armed, anti-democratic ways. We forget that capitalism in Hong Kong hummed along well before Chris Patten injected a hint of democracy. But these days the best place to view capital's love of repression is mainland, ostensibly communist, China. There, capitalism is flourishing under the regime's tyranny and running roughshod over the land and the people, as is its wont in the absence of democratic controls. Workdays are 12 to 15 hours, wages low, conditions hazardous. There are no laws to protect the workers or the public from the toxic side effects of industry. Thousands die every year in industrial accidents. Unions are state-controlled and exist chiefly to assist management in controlling workers. Of all this, capital approves. U.S. capital has voted its approval by investing $25 billion in China. Similar primitive - but profitable - conditions exist in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Haiti, Guatemala, each a darling of businessmen seeking the highest possible returns, the people be damned. Once we had this sort of thing here, and we might have it again if corporate America, in concert with the Reagan/Bush/Clinton regimes, succeeds in repealing all of labor's hard-won protections. Whatever the Chinese come up with to keep the workers down and the investors happy, it won't be anything we haven't seen here or in the far reaches of our empire. In Hong Kong the Chinese have already wiped out five worker-protection laws that were passed in the final days of the British administration. Here, the Republicans are attempting to do much the same. Here, Republicans, there "communists." Talk about fearful symmetry. The Hong Kong laws were passed over the objection of the business community; the businessmen must be pleased with Beijing's performance so far. The Washington Times, in the same story that brought us the Weeping Deity, had a decent summation of the new state of affairs in Hong Kong: "The Western diplomats, investment bankers and other robber barons who have redefined greed in Hong Kong are...perfectly content for Beijing to redefine democracy as it chooses so long as profits are undisturbed. The peasants will work harder if the People's Liberation Army keeps a boot in every butt." We know this is true, for we've seen how much harder peasants work when the Green Berets or the CIA keep a boot in every butt. The PLA could be just as good for the bottom line. Indeed, things look very promising for capital in Hong Kong, especially now that the British charade of democracy has been shunted aside. They are already breathing easier on Wall Street. The money changers will have their way, and the little people can go about their business of getting screwed, economically and politically. Tung, the new CEO of communist Hong Kong, decided not to move into the British governors' mansion, citing bad feng shui, the Chinese art of balancing the elements of the environment. There isn't an economic version of feng shui, but were there, a practitioner would surely find that things are hopelessly out of balance: worldwide the richest 358 people are worth the combined incomes of the poorest 2.5 billion. The mansion of late 20th century capitalism is scarcely fit for human habitation.


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