Friday, May 12, 2017

Kapok: The warning behind the praise

In the morning of May 9, while addressing a large audience supposedly representative of the Macao population, Chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang insisted on a task the government of the Macao SAR had to carry out: “Contradictions within the society never cease to exist; among poor people contradictions exist; among rich people contradictions exist; among majorities contradictions exist; among minorities contradictions exist; contradictions are to be found everywhere, regardless of time and place; what is crucial is how we correctly identify, get hold of and properly handle the issues, the difficulties and the contradictions.” In a sentence of only a few lines, “contradictions” — it has to be plural as there are many of them — appeared seven times!
For anybody slightly familiar with the history of Communism in China, the use of the word (maodun, 矛盾) rings a particular bell.
First, because it is markedly associated with Mao Zedong himself, who expanded on an original text from 1937 (“On Contradictions”) to develop his thinking in one of his most famous speeches entitled “On the correct handling of contradictions among the people,” delivered in February 1957. Given the comparisons that now exist between Mao and Xi Jinping, and that Zhang’s southern tour is perceived as a preparation for the one President Xi will embark on at the end of June, it is no overstretch to consider that Mr Zhang was actually uttering Mr Xi’s words.
Second, because in the 1957 harangue, Mao famously explained that “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend [was] the policy for promoting progress in the arts and sciences and a flourishing socialist culture.” It was a confirmation that criticisms were welcome, thus echoing the call for intellectual renaissance and freedom expressed by Guo Moruo, the intellectual from whom Mao had taken inspiration.
Third, because by drawing a line between what was termed “antagonistic contradictions” and “non-antagonistic contradictions”, Mao was indeed enriching the Leninist approach to class struggle, indicating that some contradictions — the ones that exist “within” — were acceptable, and even welcome as unavoidable, as long as they did not transform into contradictions “between” the people and what Mao called “the enemy”. As a first example of enemies, Mao mentioned “Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements”, which is rather ironic considering how some families in Macao started to build their fortune during World War II.
Of course, when it comes to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, one has to be extra careful: when Mao realised there were more than a few people expressing their discontent with the direction the Party was taking and that he was himself being targeted, contesters were rapidly hushed and soon persecuted. The tactic thus backfired, and the ones who suffered the most were those who had believed, reluctantly at first, the openness to be genuine. Yet, if Mao’s former physician Li Zhisui is to be trusted, it is only because the criticism became massive that the campaign turned tragically sour. Ultimately lingers the idea that some “contradictions” — political, economic and social — can become unacceptably unsettling if they are not handled properly.
Bearing in mind the context has changed, I cannot help thinking that the very fact only six “representatives” were able to openly express their opinions after Zhang Dejiang’s address serves as confirmation that behind the overall praise might lie a warning: if the contradictions were to become more antagonistic in nature, wouldn’t the Macao Chinese Chamber of Commerce (Kou Hoi In), the Federation of Trade Unions (Lei Cheng I), the Kaifong (Leong Heng Kao), the Women’s General Association (Wong Kit Cheng), the rising Fujian faction (Si Ka Lon) or Chui’s hench(wo)men (Eva Lou) be held responsible?
Let’s hope that these self-proclaimed “representatives” will not interpret the message as an invitation to tighten the screws: after all, the recent by-census indicates that about a quarter of Macao holds a tertiary degree… No more is ignorance bliss!
Published in Macau Daily Times, May 12, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kapok: The pitfalls of populism

It does not happen very often but Mr Fong Chi Keong has a point when he warns the government of the dangers of “populism” in Macao, adding, in plenary session of the Legislative Assembly, that the issue of how the government deals with public opinion and democracy has to be resolved properly.
Topping his concerns is the situation in Europe and what he calls “the paradox of democracy”. From his own reckoning, this so-called paradox was coined by analysts, an admission that in itself is worth stressing as Mr Fong has repeatedly characterised experts and scholars as “useless”. For him the contradiction lies in the overpowering capacity of the people to influence policy-making whereas very few citizens actually master the complexity and the ins and outs of institutional politics and economic development, and simply speaking, lack the ability to form an informed opinion. The consequence being on the one hand that people’s participation is seen as both “excessive” and “blind” (his words), and on the other that citizens can easily be manipulated.
Mr Fong then highlights the two main aptitudes that a government must display if populism is to be warded off. The first is for a government to face its responsibilities. Failing to do so, in his mind, will put the people at a loss, fuel social hostility and ultimately help populism blossom.
Mr Fong’s main target appears to be the excessive recourse to “public consultations”, in which he sees a distortion of the political system, an indication of the weakness of the government’s capacity to change things and a clear lack of self-confidence. And then, if the government does eventually uphold its responsibilities, it needs to act as a mediator — a second necessary skill — in order to mitigate the adverse effects of ongoing developments. Here, the main example given by legislator Fong is the conciliation role the government needs to play in labour disputes, at a time when labour movements have grown in autonomy and thus more demanding.
This is all very well, and being French and having just participated in the first round of France’s presidential election that many have dubbed a “triumph of populism”, I can concur: when “populism” wins, public policies rooted in reason and social stability are put at risk. But then this is one of the characteristics of democracy: sovereignty resides in the people, and even though it might look messy, it also means that people can rebel without resorting to revolution by using the legal channels of election, even if it means breaking away from the European Union or putting in the White House a whimsical twitting-maniac as the most powerful leader of the planet. Is it challenging? Hell yeah! Are democratic institutions crumbling? Well, Brexit is being engineered by Theresa May along the idea of a “deep and special relationship” with the European Union and Mr Trump has experienced a few setbacks regarding the scrapping of the Obamacare, enforcing illegal travel bans or even letting go the North American Free Trade Agreement.
What does Mr Fong actually mean by populism in a place where the Chief Executive runs unopposed and only 41% of the legislators are returned via universal (competitive) suffrage? What does he mean by the government not “assuming responsibility”? By his own token, given that Mr Fong was one of the most vocal opponents of the domestic violence law (ultimately passed) and the staunchest supporter of the 2014 perks’ bill for senior officials (ultimately withdrawn following the most important street demonstrations since 1989), what would “taking his responsibility” mean? My guess is a bit of courage and for him to resign.
The root cause of populism is not democracy: it is the perpetuation of illegitimate and plutocratic community leaders who have proven time again their incapacity to make the right choices for the common good. In a democracy or even in a result-driven autocracy benefiting the majority, the paradox can somehow be resolved more or less peacefully…
Published in Macau Daily Times, April 28, 2017

Friday, April 07, 2017

Kapok: Everything's patriotic now!

Patriotism is double-edged: nurture the bond that it entails and it becomes a virtue; make it a blind imperative and venture into dangerous territories in which hierarchies are induced, force prevails and ultimately oppression arises. Broadly speaking, patriotism is assumed to be an act of “love”, whereas nationalism, its contemporary by-product, helps build the case for war. Among the most notorious quotes drawing a distinction between the two is that by American essayist Stanley Harris: “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
The word “patriotism” comes from “patria”, the Latin for “fatherland”, and indicated an attachment and commitment to a “familiar place” in Roman antiquity. It evolved into more of a political concept meaning a loyalty to some values, even though it was strictly more social than political. The civic engagement it presumed was in no way a challenge to the powers that be! From there, the idea was that patriotism be linked to citizenship, and a republican form of government took shape. In the Encyclopaedia Britannica, patriotism is “associated with the love of law and common liberty, the search for the common good, and the duty to behave justly toward one’s country.”
In contrast, nationalism, which originates in the Latin “natio”, meaning birth, implies a linkage between the birthplace, language and culture, although at least two perspectives compete: a more “objective” one, backed by German philosophers, emphasises the commonality of characteristics shared by a group of people; and a more “subjective” one, upheld by French philosophers, insists on “the will to live together”, and thus a voluntary act of belonging.
No doubt it is a mix of both conceptualizations that led Sun Yat-sen to define “nationalism” as one of the Three Principles of the People — together with “democracy” and “welfare” — that would allow China to restore its pride and become once again a free, prosperous and powerful country. In 1949, Mao’s Communist Party “liberated” China from foreign invaders, and the People’s Republic of China’s army is still today called the People’s Liberation Army. The problem is that “nationalism” is a “bourgeois ideology” in the Marxist tradition, and the reference to “nationalism” was somewhat confiscated by the Kuomintang, literally the “party of the people of a nation”. In Chinese, one refers to a “feeling” (xin) when patriotism is summoned, whereas a “doctrine” (zhuyi) is invoked when it comes to “nationalism”.
In today’s Macao, patriotism serves every purpose. No significant association will not include — or have its statutes changed to reflect that new requirement — an article that insists on the purpose to “love the country, love Macao” (aiguo aiao), whether it is to promote Macao’s F&B, modern dance or communal gatherings – even more so in education.
Although the “One thousand people program” (qianren jihua) funded by the Macao Foundation was originally to “nurture and promote the development of talents in Macao”, its blunt imperative is actually to bond with the “motherland”.
Almost all participating organisations in 2016 and 2017 (altogether 22 schools and 21 associations) correspond to Macao’s traditional patronage associations, the very same that have been vested with this task for decades — from the General Association of Chinese Students of Macao to the Association of Returned Overseas Chinese Macao, together with the youth organisations of the Kaifong, the Women’s General Association, the Federation of Trade Unions. Are these really the best channels to stimulate a “feeling” of double inclusiveness – an attachment to the familiar and a respect for a broader unity? Allowing for a bit of genuine “engagement” from diversified sources may prove more convincing!
Published in Macau Daily Times, April 7, 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

Kapok: Choice matters

Despite all the loathing at the pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive election in Hong Kong, having a somewhat contested selection process, with a few candidates vying for the top job, does make a difference and bring healthy civic benefits. And this, even though Beijing’s “preferred candidate”, Carrie Lam, qualified with 580 nominations (only 21 short of the majority she will need on March 26), against a mere 180 for Woo Kwok-hing and 165 for John Tsang.
This not to say that the reform package proposed by the Hong Kong government in 2014-2015 and derived from Beijing’s August 31, 2014 ruling on the limit imposed as to whom could run is not a travesty of universal suffrage: it is, from every angle and by any criteria, and it does ridicule the core idea of free choice made by the whole body of citizens.
Moreover, it makes the 2007 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress ruling on universal suffrage by 2017 for the CE election look like a mockery, even more so after the successful so-called civil referendum of June 2014, with a turnout of close to 800,000 voters, that resulted in 42 percent of the participants backing up the proposal allowing the public, a nominating committee, and political parties to endorse candidates for the top position.
Hence, the frustration, that translated first in the truly unexpected period of occupation of Hong Kong landmarks for almost three months — the “Umbrella Movement” — in late 2014 and then the electoral victories of self-determination-leaning young democrats in the legislative elections of September 2016 as well as the record win of 326 seats by pan-democrats for the Election Committee sub-sector elections of last December.
If the pressure put on Beijing and the establishment has changed in nature, it is still very much present and pervasive, and the very fact that C.Y. Leung was not allowed to stand for a second mandate suggests that the central authorities are well aware of the present state of mind of society — an honorary united-front title hardly compensates.
One could argue that Long Hair’s failed attempt at gathering 38,000 popular nominations (1 percent of the eligible voters, in line with the winning motion of the 2014 civil referendum) for an alternative “shadow election” indicates a serious drop in pressure. Even the unofficial referendum on the chief executive election that ended on March 20 resulted in only 63,076 people participating, and yet the final result was pretty telling: 96.1 percent opposed Lam, and Tsang prevailed. The former financial secretary had started to show his predominance in the polls as early as January, and in the most recent rolling poll administered by Hong Kong University, his overwhelming superiority had grown in strength over the whole month of March, whereas Lam had suffered an equally steady decline.
Quite ironically, the discrepancy between the popularity of one — John Tsang — and the certainty of the victory of the other — Carrie Lam — is in itself proving more stimulating than disheartening. First, because despite the election being decided by so-called “small circles”, the campaign has been all about showing that each and everyone was in tune with the people’s concerns — hence the campaign posters in the MTR and the TV debates. Second, because if this is also working in Beijing’s interest by suggesting that the acceptance of the 2015 electoral reform package could have yielded a more congruent ultimate outcome (with universal suffrage, Tsang would probably win), it is also putting in crude light the exhaustion of the present system, to the point where even though issues get debated, alternative proposals barely look more than cosmetically contentious. The triumph of style over substance.
The campaign was indeed less audacious than in 2007, as well as less farcical and gripping than in 2012, but by giving debate a chance, accountability will be easier to assert. No wonder then that democrats in Macao would have accepted a Beijing-sponsored version of universal suffrage: the one candidate-one seat formula in our SAR is not only grotesque but also totally obsolete!
Published in Macau Daily Times, March 24, 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

Kapok: Clubbing sessions

It’s once again this time of the year when the unique institutional design of the People’s Republic of China displays its highest degree of sophistication: March corresponds to the convening of the “two meetings” or “two sessions”, the gathering of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that started last Friday, a purely consultative body that has been likened to a gentlemen’s club, and the plenary session of the National People’s Congress, supposedly the highest organ of state power.
The CPPCC is the translation of what we call “united front work” in China, meaning in official speech a “multi-party [8 small parties] cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China”, that is to say the closest thing to a ritualized form of consultation process under the very strict guidance of THE Party in lieu of any democratic undertaking, with no actual power. In this cenacle of happy few — a bit more than 2,000 members — happenings are always possible though, as when Luo Fuhe, a vice-chairman of the CPPCC and the executive vice-chairman of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, breaks ranks and denounces openly the heavy hand of censorship over the internet as hampering scientific research and economic development in the country. He, of course, stops short of denouncing censorship for its adverse effects over freedom of speech, but then, can anyone imagine Edmund Ho or Tung Chee-hwa, both of them equally vice-chairmen, doing the same? After all, they represent the “second system”, in which — fear not — liberal ideas are tolerated and alive, despite the very limited and ever-shrinking grounding of democracy.
The NPC is in another league, with its slightly less than 3,000 members. On paper, it can amend the constitution, enact and amend laws, ratify and abrogate treaties. It also approves the state budget and plans for national economic and social development, and can elect as well as impeach top officials of the state (including the President) and judiciary, and supervise the work of the executive, the military and the judiciary. Zhang Dejiang, its chairman who will retire next year, ranks No. 3 of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Party. Yet, in reality, the NPC plenary session serves mainly as a nation-wide nod giving bonding ceremony that bestows 80%+ approval rates to decisions already taken by the Communist Party — hence the “rubber-stamp” characterization.
Both congresses are in their twelfth instalment, and mandates span over five years. Next year will see the swearing-in of supposedly renewed representatives.
Hong Kong and Macao do participate of course. Hong Kong sends 36 NPC deputies and 203 CPPCC delegates, and Macao respectively 12 and 29 — there are actually more CPPCC delegates from Macao, but they represent other functional constituencies.
If we turn our eyes exclusively to Macao, there is no doubt that our CPPCC delegates describe perfectly what a former member equated to “a sort of chamber of commerce” for the rich and powerful to mingle, to the point where actually some NPC deputies and almost all our CPPCC delegates are members of the Macao Chinese General Chamber of Commerce — a venerable institution that counts more than 150 (!) members in leadership positions! All but one in the CPPCC, as Ng Lap Seng has been under house arrest on corruption charges in the United States since September 2015.
For the NPC, the Macao deputies can be best described as long-term Beijing loyalists. In that respect, they resemble their ancestors of the fourth National Congress (1975-1978), in which the first deputies for Macao were “great patriots” representing business (Ho Yin, the father of Edmund Ho), the central authorities (O Cheng Peng), trade unions (Liang Pei) and education (Sin Wai Hang). Today is about the same — tradition is a Macao thing — except that we also have the President of the Legislative Assembly and a serving Secretary of Economy and Finance! No such thing in Hong Kong of course, but in Macao, conflicts of interest(sss), actual or perceived, are part and parcel of the system.
Published in Macau Daily Times on March 10, 2017