Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Civil society as a early warning system: what the U.S. elections, Occupy Central and Brexit (but not China) have in common

We live in a time when everywhere you look, you can spot a governance crisis around which is strewn the detritus of broken political institutions. In the U.S., we're almost at the end of a divisive, insanely expensive election campaign and the rise of Trump who has called the U.S. electoral system "rigged". In Hong Kong, we're seeing at this very moment the rejection of the Basic Law and "one country, two systems" by the younger generation who do not see themselves as part of China. In Europe, we've been witnessing Brexit and the rise of virulent nationalism throughout the European Union.

It may be tempting to hold civil society responsible for this state of affairs by pointing a trembling finger at the social forces seeking to divide us and undermine our institutions. But I would turn that causal relationship around and argue that those forces are more the symptom than the cause of the breakdown in our political institutions. In other words, we are made aware of our broken political institutions by citizens and citizen-initiated movements like white Americans without college degrees, the Tea Party, Occupy Central activists, and right-wing European extremists railing against immigration and terrorism. They serve as a kind of early warning system about the health of our polity. It is true these movements are sometimes manipulated by elites, and they are not always civil, but they are coming from citizens who feel they have been disenfranchised by the political system. If we are smart, we would do well to listen to their grievances and address them rather than dismiss them as the lunatic fringe or, in Hillary Clinton's unfortunate wording "basket of deplorables".

It's instructive (and maybe also comforting to those of us living in the U.S., Hong Kong and Europe) to use this same perspective to look at China where President Xi Jinping and others in the Chinese leadership have decided they can improve on and manage governance without a true civil society or independent media.  The current situation in China is truly more frightening than anything we are seeing in the U.S., Hong Kong and Europe because you realize there is no way for citizens who feel they are disenfranchised to voice their displeasure, or for the media to report about it. And therefore there is no way to truly know if China is headed for a governance or legitimacy crisis. 

The lesson? Rancor and upheaval may not be all that bad as long as we see it for what it is. Harmony and order may not be all that good unless we see it for what it isn't.

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