Asian Values

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It was a very Hong Kong occasion. The weather was stifling, the air pollution was awful, and the crowd—carrying digital cameras and mobile phones, without which no self-respecting Hong Kong person is properly dressed—was polite and well mannered almost to a fault. But proud, too. "This is monumental," said an old man who came up to me outside the government offices. "There's nowhere else in the world that could have a parade like this, so peaceably."

He may be right. A crowd variously estimated to number 200,000 (by the police) or more than 500,000 (by the organizers) marched through Hong Kong on July 1, reprising the astonishing turnout for the first such demonstration a year ago. It's been conventional wisdom to describe the two marches as evidence of a new political consciousness in a city whose people were once said to be absorbed solely by a desire to get rich, but that isn't strictly true. Hong Kong has embraced political theater at times of crisis in the past. I was in Hong Kong the week after the massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, when an endless line of people, many of them weeping, filed each night past the offices of the Xinhua News Agency, then China's unofficial embassy in the city, and black mourning ribbons hung from the top of the Bank of China skyscraper.

It is undeniably true, though, that this year's march marked a new development in Hong Kong. The demonstrations in 1989 were prompted by fears that Hong Kong's way of life would be threatened after the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. Last year's march followed an awful year in which the city had been by paralyzed by an economic slump and the SARS epidemic. This year, by contrast, Hong Kong turned out to celebrate and demand democracy, calling for the popular election of the territory's Chief Executive in 2007 and for universal suffrage in the vote for the Legislative Council in 2008. (Beijing, which has the ultimate say on what is allowed in Hong Kong's political development, has ruled out both.)

In its enthusiasm for the ballot box, Hong Kong is firmly within today's Asian mainstream. This week sees the first chance that Indonesians—238 million of them—have had to elect their President directly, and they have taken to the opportunity with gusto. (In elections to the nation's federal, provincial and district assemblies in April, nearly 135 million votes were cast for some 165,000 candidates.) In May, about 350 million Indians cast votes in the parliamentary elections, leading to the peaceful transfer of power from one group of political parties to another. Those Asian nations that do not allow freely contested elections among candidates with different political views—such as Burma, Vietnam and of course China itself—are beginning to look like outliers to the dominant trend.

Voting, of course, does not a democracy make. It's become fashionable to insist that true democracy requires more than elections—it also demands the rule of law, honest bureaucrats, the protection of minorities and so on. (By those criteria, Indonesia still has some way to go.) But that doesn't mean that building democratic societies has to proceed at a snail's pace—a process that can be used by entrenched élites to hold on to power while they "ready" their nations for democracy. In a recent speech, Mark Malloch-Brown, the administrator of the U.N. Development Program, acknowledged that "democracy is a long project" but cautioned against "believing that democracy takes millennia to evolve." Elections may not be everything, but you have to start somewhere. Countries that have free elections may or may not be truly democratic; countries that do not have them never are.

The Chinese leadership has not yet admitted that truth. But it is beginning to see the wisdom of looking to other countries' experiences in making the transition to modernity. In a speech last month to a closed-door session of the Communist Party leadership, President Hu Jintao said that the Party should "study and borrow from the useful practices" of ruling parties elsewhere in the world, in order to "widen our eyes and open our minds." The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that Hu went on to say that the repositioning of the British Labour Party to the center was an example of political adaptation worth studying. So it is; but if China's leaders want to find a vibrant, modern, political culture, there's no need to make the trip to London. Hong Kong is much closer.