23rd April, 2014
Deliberation Is Not Useless
Occupy Central with Love and Peace has organised multiple deliberations, with the last deliberation day on May 6 being the most crucial as it will discuss which proposals will be offered for the general public to vote on in referendum.
Before the May 6 deliberation day, Professor Benny Tai has invited international law experts to discuss the principles of universal suffrage and hosted panel discussions for initiators to present their proposals. All this time, many, including pro-democracy supporters, criticize Occupy Central for deliberating with no end, unable to achieve anything by 2047, and lacking the capacity to act. However, these critics are not being fair to Occupy Central if they keep railing against the movement without having participated in the previous deliberation days. To that end, I attended the second deliberation day to observe the process of deliberation.
Deliberations are constructive although not without limitations. If we see Occupy Central as a civil education movement rather than an activist movement, its positive contributions are multifold. Like the 5-Constituency Referendum initiated by the Civic Party and League of Social Democrats in 2010, although its end goal was referendum, it had a significant impact on civil education with the promotions and public discussions that resulted from the campaign. This time, Occupy Central provides an opportunity for Hong Kong people to reflect on the meaning, definition and mode of participation of democracy. Deepening discussions improves the quality of civil society, which is an indispensible element of a healthy democracy. An electoral system does not equate to true democracy if it lacks an informed and educated electorate, strong support from civil society, and the spirit of democracy.
Occupy Central is truly listening and responding to public opinion. On the second Deliberation Day, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, including senior citizens, university students, politicians and workers, shared their views on democracy in small group discussions. Since everyone knows each other by face and name, participants respect others’ opinions rather than leaving comments online that are irresponsible, unconstructive and based on personal attacks.
Moreover, the biggest benefit of deliberation days is empowerment. Just as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and Constitutional Affairs Chief Raymond Tam organised public consultations in the 18 districts, Occupy Central also hosted tens of deliberation days with civil society organisations across the city. Some of these organisations, ranging from conservative religious groups to women’s groups to associations of people with disabilities, tend to be politically apathetic and overlooked by the public. Nevertheless, having been invited to participate in discussions and give their perspectives, these groups realised that their opinions are valued and they have the power to bring change.
That day, I sat next to a group of women workers who were invited to speak in front of an audience of 1500. These female workers sell lunch boxes in canteens every day and are not used to speaking in front of a crowd. Yet, on that day they were brave enough to speak in turn about their hopes and expectations for democracy. Deliberations have helped them gain self-confidence – a great step to strengthening civil society. Compared to the insincere consultations and excuses made by “honorable” government officials, deliberation days allow much more public participation on equal ground and cultivate a true spirit of democracy.
Of course, deliberation has its own limitations. Like any democratic society, people with better education are in a more advantageous position. They tend to be more active in political participation, know the rules of the game, understand abstract concepts and be able to articulate their views. Although they are the few, they have the upper hand in the game.
For instance, in my group, 3 participants from a working class background couldn’t even comprehend the question: If the proposal submitted by the government meets the international norms, who gets to participate in deliberations to decide whether the second referendum is necessary? If one hasn’t been following Occupy Central, one wouldn’t understand the question at all. From my teaching experience as a university lecturer, not even all university students are able to explain abstract methodology concepts in concise legal language, let alone elderly people and women who sell snacks in canteens?
Though volunteers assisted with discussions, they added their own interpretations when explaining the discussion content, rendering the explanations a bit biased. At the end, some participants followed the majority opinion or group leaders in voting. In the group that I sat in, 5 out of 10 people were not able to fully comprehend all the questions, let alone their implications. This is a common phenomenon in any democratic country, demonstrating the good and bad of democracy.
Deliberation days plant the seeds of democracy. They also allow participants to experience problems facing a democratic system. Thanks to the careful planning of the organisers, Occupy Central was able to avoid the kind of chaos initiated by leftist groups that took place in the HKTV demonstrations. The second deliberation day was quite successful in educating and empowering civil society, boosting rather than harming the morale among the 1500 participants.
As for people who support democracy but have no patience to understand and participate in the democracy building process, their sense of powerlessness will not go away. The organisers of Occupy Central understand that, so they established an Action Team, led by Rev. Chu, and organised nonviolence resistance rehearsals and trainings.
This is a beginning. Occupy Central has learned from previous experience and public criticisms to at least provide photo opportunities for reporters to produce stories. However, the weakness of Occupy Central still lies in publicity. Especially since many local media organisations are downplaying Occupy Central, the movement needs to work harder to convey its messages to the public.
HKBU School of Communication Lecturer