Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2015
Volume 26
Issue 1
Page Numbers 197-203
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Hong Kong

On November 15, the Hong Kong Federation of Students published a letter to Chinese premier Li Keqiang inviting him to visit Hong Kong. The students were among the leaders of the protests (known worldwide as the “Umbrella Revolution”) that erupted in Hong Kong in September in response to a decision by China’s National People’s Congress to restrict nominations for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Excerpts from the letter appear below:

Greetings. We are a group of college students in Hong Kong, writing this letter to you while sitting on a Hong Kong street.

You must have known that several of Hong Kong’s main streets have been filled with students and citizens since the end of September. It’s been over 40 days. You might not know that we are fighting for the political rights we should have, and have not been instructed to do this by a so-called “opposition conspiracy” or “hostile foreign forces.”

We sincerely invite you to come to Hong Kong, take a look at these Hong Kong people on the streets who haven’t gone home for months, and listen to everyone’s true feelings. Then, you will know what all this is for.

If you can’t come, that doesn’t matter. We are glad to go to Beijing to meet you. As the Prime Minister, the highest official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, we hope you can listen to our hundreds of thousands [of] Hong Kong people’s voices directly, instead of listening to all kinds of reports from “related departments.” Then, you can make a correct political judgment.

The appeal of these hundreds of thousands [of] Hong Kong people on the streets is very simple and direct: have the National People’s Congress (NPC) withdraw the decision over the Hong Kong elections made on Aug. 31 and resume the discussion of Hong Kong political reform. . . . [End Page 197]

The decision undermines the confidence of the Hong Kong young people about whether the return of democracy to society would come true under the “one country, two systems” policy, and the decision shakes the foundation of healthy interactions between Hong Kong and mainland China. . . .

For those of us in the younger generation, since we were born, we have deeply felt that Hong Kong is an unjust and desperate city. It has extreme inequality of opportunity, and a few elites dominate the political and economic lifeline.

Why has Hong Kong come to such a situation?

It’s because Hong Kong doesn’t have good governance, and doesn’t have a good blueprint for economic development and social reform. It’s unable to guarantee freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary, unable to establish a fair social and economic system, unable to reduce the disparity of wealth.

Why is it hard to have good governance, development, and reform? Because Hong Kong is stuck in the bottleneck of political reform. Under an undemocratic system, political and business elites collude to manipulate society, the government ignores public opinion, the government doesn’t have the heart or the ability to promote any just reform, and the public grievances get bigger and bigger.

People of insight in Hong Kong, either the pro-establishment camp or the pan-democracy camp, have long been aware that without democratic reform, the political power crisis will be hard to solve, and it’ll be difficult for the government to govern effectively.

In the past over 10 years, in order to achieve democratic self-government, Hong Kong people have appealed to implement people’s basic rights and with great care and perseverance have urged the government to heed good advice. It’s a pity that the Aug. 31 decision thoroughly disappointed us.

We are taking another step forward today, even taking civil disobedience to occupy the streets. It reflects the past 30 years of history, and deep worry about Hong Kong.

Dear Prime Minister, if you are at the scene, you will understand that we are definitely not presumptuous, nor are we instructed by others. We have to do this. We just hope that our most reasonable appeal could get the most basic respect. We really have no other way to have the Beijing government know the appeals and determination of our generation. . . .

Those in power must face the suffering, oppression, injustice, and resentment in this city. They can’t just deceive people by attributing it to “external forces.” Without facing the Hong Kong people’s persistent pursuit of democracy, facing the long term social conflicts and grievances, and getting into the context to think of a way to resolve these problems, Hong Kong will not be able to be governed. [End Page 198]

Afghanistan

On September 21, following lengthy negotiations and an audit of the June 14 presidential runoff, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani was proclaimed Afghanistan’s new president. Excerpts from his 310-page campaign manifesto appear below:

Throughout Afghanistan’s history the prime cause of challenges and crisis has been governments that in their actions followed the logic of autocracy. . . . But the outcome of autocracy, ahead of anything, is “political instability.” This is because autocracy is in conflict with the human identity as a being that is free and makes choices. For this reason, autocracy cannot last and very quickly triggers reaction. Such reaction surfaces as popular resistance and leads to the collapse of the autocratic government.

To save ourselves from such crisis, we must set up a democratic government. A democratic government, in contrast to an autocratic government, rests on the vote and will of the people and instead of politics of exclusion, it makes use of politics of participation and the prime goal is not the preservation of power, rather, the key goal is the safeguarding of public order and provision of public services. In addition, this government is impartial towards its citizens and knows no tribal, linguistic, racial and religious favoritism and makes equality the fundament and basis of its governance. . . .

We have a democratic political system available to us. In terms of its shape, this system has guaranteed widespread participation of the country’s citizens in all spheres of collective life. But in terms of substance, we still need deep and fundamental changes so that this participation of citizens is given institutional support in thinking, culture, literature and collective conduct and is given immunity against individual whims, dictatorial, totalitarian and anti-democratic tendencies.

Administrative corruption has like cancer taken control of our political and administrative bodies, affecting all parts of society. It is for this reason that the slogans “hand over jobs to the qualified” or “rules above relations” surface as expressions of one of the most essential wishes of our citizens. Our society needs a fundamental and profound change in methods of managing political power so that—leaning on lawful methods, leadership, and political will—it becomes capable of making use of international experiences to overcome this catastrophe. . . .

The people have become tired of the culture of violence, hatred, brute force and bloodshed and the establishment of stability and the ensuring of the rule of law have become the primary request of all citizens. . . .

We must create legitimate political institutions so that the foundations of state legitimacy grow continuously through democratic and coherent politics. This change is counted as the foundation for the establishment of a new political culture in the country. Through laws and structures, [End Page 199] statesmanship and governance must turn into something that requires technical and professional skills. Statesmanship and governance are not matters of taste but need lawful planning and implementation whereby the key goal would be to serve the people. In this matter, we are in need of a profound and fundamental change so that a technical consensus resting on successful international norms and standards can take place in the management of our political system. . . .

The constitution is one of the most significant pillars of all of the outstanding gains of the last thirteen years. Resting on this constitution, for the first time all the peoples of Afghanistan, regardless of their affiliation to a tribe, a linguistic group, a region, a gender, a religion or their social standing have been given the rights of citizens within the context of the law. This achievement will be taken as the foundation for all of the future civic and democratic achievements. When each and every individual is given the legitimacy and dignity of citizenship, the conditions for a democratic society and government are created naturally. . . .

Human rights are one of the most important values that have been stressed in our constitution and the protection of these values is the most important obligation of our state and government. These values, as a point of connection, linking our nation with the civilized nations of the world, are one of the key principles of “continuity” and will be transmitted to the future generations of the country as our great legacy.

Angola

On November 4, journalist Rafael Marques de Morais delivered the third annual Carlos Cardoso Memorial Lecture at Johannesburg’s Wits University. Marques, head of the anticorruption website Maka Angola, is known for his courageous investigative reporting on conflict, the diamond industry, and corruption in Angola. In his speech, Marques pays tribute to his Mozambican colleague Carlos Cardoso, a leading journalist who was assassinated on 22 November 2000 while investigating a massive fraud case. Excerpts appear below:

Today I am here to talk about freedom of expression as a struggle in countries in which the powers that be have been operating above the law. These are the ones for whom the law is a tool of personal power. These are the strongmen who thrive on their ability to keep people in fear.

I am here to talk about the courage, the leadership, and the solidarity that are required to bring down the walls of fear, and with them the fear-mongers . . . I would like to address: first, what is happening in the SADC [the Southern African Development Community]; second, Ethiopia for its worst record of abuses against journalists; and then my experiences in pushing the boundaries for freedom of expression in Angola. [End Page 200]

In the SADC region, there are three countries where such a struggle for freedom of expression is of particular concern: Angola, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. What these countries have in common is that their heads of state are among the five longest serving in Africa. . . .

As for the media and civil societies in the three aforementioned countries, there is a paradox. Zimbabwe has a vibrant, very skilled media and civil society sector. For years, there has been an outpouring of support from the international community for civil society and the opposition. But oppression has triumphed, the opposition has crumbled and the press continues to be prosecuted. In Angola, in which the equivalent sectors have had negligible international support, it is corruption that has further weakened civil society. Little remains of the independent press, and the opposition.

Currently, there is arguably no more inspirational example of the struggle for freedom of expression than the cases of prominent human rights attorney Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu, both from Swaziland. On 25 July both received two-year prison sentences for articles they had written criticising the lack of judicial independence in their country. . . . In his stand against the dictatorial regime of King Mswati II, Thulani Maseko read from the dock: “When freedom is taken away, it becomes the onerous and supreme duty of men to reclaim it from the oppressor. For giving up freedom is tantamount to giving away man’s right to dignity.” . . .

Then there is the case of Ethiopia, which hosts the headquarters of the African Union. Rather than being the symbol of an African renaissance anchored on the respect of human rights, Ethiopia stands out for leading the continent in the opposite direction. In 2012, the country prosecuted and convicted several independent journalists, including veteran Eskinder Nega, for alleged “terrorist” activities. . . . The last few independent Ethiopian journalists have been arrested and convicted. . . . There is much courage and fearlessness among Ethiopian journalists. . . . We African journalists and human rights campaigners must be embarrassed for doing so little to support our peers in Ethiopia.

Why is it such a struggle to keep the strongmen in their place and let society flourish in accordance [with] our constitutions, which incorporate freedom of expression and the respect for human rights? How does repression triumph over people’s will to speak their mind? . . .

[In Angola] what existed of independent media is now under the control of proxies of the regime, and the internet has emerged as the last frontier for freedom of expression. . . .

As I speak to you, I am awaiting at any time to face nine separate trials in Angola, for supposedly having offended seven Angolan generals and two diamond companies. Upon describing more than 100 cases of torture and murder committed by personnel employed by them in their private security companies and diamond ventures, I concluded that they [End Page 201] are the moral authors of crimes against humanity. . . . The generals are demanding US$1.2m from me in damages, besides a jail sentence. . . .

For 22 years I have been covering the diamond industry, first, back in 1992, when I began my career as a state media journalist. When I realised that there was a systematic pattern of torture and killings by private security companies in the northeastern diamond region of Angola, I decided to document such cases. . . .

Often, I have been asked if there isn’t a conflict between being a journalist and a human rights defender or an activist. My answer is simple, and based on my own experiences.

While I was in jail, some prisoners who had been incarcerated without due process—without even a case being brought by the public prosecutor—found ways to tell me their stories. They had a hidden radio in prison and heard all the news on my case. They kept me abreast of the outpouring of solidarity I was receiving at home and abroad. They believed that, with all the national and international pressure, I would not rot in jail and I would be able to tell their stories. . . .

I kept myself busy collecting such cases and passing them onto others. Right after I left the Viana prison, the authorities fast-tracked the release of more than 1,000 prisoners, one of whom had been there for 15 years without a trial. Such were the exposés that led to the jail being shut down for a few years for upgrading. . . .

Somehow, I became known as a human rights defender or activist. Then I kept investigating and publishing reports on human rights abuses in the diamond areas. I continued to be called a human rights defender. I am proud of defending the rights of my citizens. Journalists are supposed to defend constitutional rights too.

Members of the regime are not shy about saying in public that the fact that I am alive, and still doing my work, is evidence of democracy in Angola and the magnanimity of our president. Some foreign diplomats in the country also make the same argument in their efforts to defend the regime as not being authoritarian.

Whatever the arguments, I have taken on the leadership on the two most concerning subjects in Angola, corruption and human rights abuses. Through my website, Maka Angola, I have made it my mission to expose, through my investigations, the scourge of corruption, which is robbing the country of billions of dollars a year.

I could not watch Carlos Cardoso’s back. But I can plead with you here today for us to campaign relentlessly for our peers who are wrongfully imprisoned, particularly in Ethiopia. They did not want to be heroes, but concerned citizens and dedicated professionals.

To Eskinder Nega, to Bheki Makhubu and many others in prison, I thank you for your courage and determination, which are an inspiration.

I am here for you. I am your brother-in-arms. [End Page 202]

China

On October 10, a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates and leading human-rights organizations sent an open letter to the United Nations and the European Union calling for the immediate release of human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, currently the only Nobel laureate in prison. The letter was published on the day of the announcement of the recipients of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize—Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights advocate, and 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education. The text of the letter appears below:

We are writing to you to express our strong indignation regarding the continuous imprisonment of Dr. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, in China. We also express our dismay that his wife, the artist and poet Liu Xia, has now been under an illegal house arrest for more than four years, and that her brother Liu Hui was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison on so-called economic crimes.

On December 25, 2009, the Chinese government sentenced Dr. Liu, a highly respected intellectual and famous dissident, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion.” The charges were based on his political essays and co-authorship of “Charter 08,” which called for peaceful political reform in China based on the principles of human rights, freedom, and democracy.

Since his selection for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia have been denied access from the outside world. We have several times reiterated our call for their unconditional release. We have also called upon world leaders and international organizations to exercise pressure on the Chinese authorities to ensure that the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Prize Laureate is given his freedom. On December 4th, 2012, 135 Nobel Laureates, across all disciplines, wrote an open letter to the newly-appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the Honorable Xi Jinping, inviting him to recognize the challenges that China still faces regarding its human rights record and to take concrete steps towards embracing the fundamental rights of all Chinese citizens.

We still consider today that the essential first step towards progress in this field is the immediate and unconditional release of Dr. Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia. Ahead of this year’s announcement of the next Laureate for the Nobel Peace Prize, we invite you personally to speak out against the continuous illegal imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and the house arrest of Liu Xia and call publicly for their release. We remain confident that under the current circumstances, the world, the United Nations and the European Union cannot remain silent and leave without defense a Nobel Laureate, the civil society in China and the Chinese activists struggling for fundamental rights and universal principles. [End Page 203]