“Reinvigorating Democracy in Asia and Beyond”
NDI President Derek Mitchell's Remarks at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club
November 26, 2019
Thank you, Shibani, for that kind introduction, and for hosting me here today. Thank you all for coming out this afternoon.
Thank you as well to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club. This is a legendary institution. For over seventy years, this Club has stood as not only a locus but also a symbol of the Hong Kong people’s longstanding commitment to free expression, a free press, open debate, and the search for truth - all cornerstones of a free democratic society. Your mission of supporting journalism and public discourse here in Hong Kong remains more important than ever. I applaud you for your continued work.
And let me offer my congratulations right off to the people of this great territory for peacefully completing district-level elections just two days ago. The astounding 70%+ turnout puts even established democracies (like mine) to shame. And the results speak for themselves – rather loudly and clearly, I should say.
I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk more about this in the discussion that follows. But Hong Kongers of all stripes should be proud of what occurred the other day, whatever the results. It once again put you in the global spotlight for all the right reasons, and earned the admiration of citizens all over the world. Congratulations again.
I am at the tail end of my first trip to Asia as NDI president. I was first in Nepal for a couple days early last week, and then Myanmar over the past five days or so. It was my first-ever trip to Nepal. Not quite my first time in Myanmar.
There were some interesting general similarities I detected: both are tremendously diverse, underdeveloped, multi-ethnic countries seeking to emerge from brutal internal conflict into a new era of peace, development and democratic federalism. From there, however, they diverge in some serious ways. I’m sure we’ll also have a chance to discuss that in greater depth in the Q&A later.
Let me start, though, with a few words about the organization I lead.
The National Democratic Institute, or NDI, was founded 36 years ago, in 1983. We are affiliated with the Democratic Party of the United States, but not formally connected to the party, with a separate Board of Directors chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Over the past three decades, we have worked in more than 150 countries. We currently maintain more than 50 offices around the world. We receive about 50 percent of our funding via program grants from USAID; 20 to 25 percent from the National Endowment of Democracy as a core grantee; and additional support from the US State Department and international development agencies, including from the UK, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway among others. We also receive private support.
We are a non-partisan, non-governmental organization based in Washington D.C., whose mission is to support those working to build and sustain the nuts and bolts of democratic practice in their countries. That means not only assisting the development of political parties, legislatures, civil society organizations and other institutions, but also facilitating their interaction with one another and with the public, to ensure democracy delivers credible elections, thoughtful and responsive policy making, and ultimately stable, prosperous societies.
In the work we do, NDI does not pick sides – we work with all equally, with partners across the political spectrum, as long as they accept the basic tenets of peaceful political contest. We are interested in process not outcomes, work transparently, and do not advocate for specific policies aside from those that directly support the principles of a fair, democratic process – transparency, accountability, and inclusion of all, equally.
Neither, I might add, is our charter to export the so-called “American” model – a common misconception. In the work we do, we instead share a variety of democratic models and experiences from around the world to allow countries to learn lessons and decide for themselves what works in their individual context.
To assist us, over the last three decades we have built an extensive global network of democratic practitioners that we tap into on a regular basis. And that network grows by the day. It is work we at NDI are proud and rather humbled to take part in, and one we feel is more needed than ever.
State of Global Democracy
Just a few weeks back, the world took note of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in Berlin myself for a couple days along with NDI’s Chairman, Madeleine Albright, to commemorate the anniversary.
The tenor of conversations was consistent. Thirty years ago and in the decade that followed, the future of democracy seemed bright. History had ended. Democracy had triumphed. The tide was coming in - a tide that washed over Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America alike. There was a whiff of inevitability, even triumphalism about the spread of democracy around the world, even if many believed the process would take time, perhaps generations, to truly take hold.
Thirty years later, most bemoaned that challenges to democracy worldwide seemed severe and on the ascendant. Democracy worldwide, according to various surveys, has regressed each year for more than a decade, not just in new democracies in lesser developed countries but even in established democracies with developed economies.
Apparently even including my own in the United States. At least that’s what I’m hearing…
These challenges are exacerbated by a number of factors:
- new digital technologies that allow spoilers to sow division and disinformation more quickly, widely and effectively than ever before;
- the emergence of demagogues who prey on insecurity, fear and racial or religious division to gradually subvert democracy in fact while often retaining it in form;
- the rise of assertive autocratic states that consider democracy a direct challenge to their interests; and
- the failure in too many places of democracy to deliver tangible benefits for citizens to meet their minimal expectations.
As a result, confident assumptions of democratic inevitability have dissipated. Fatalism has set in among some. And autocratic leaders have appeared to be becoming more confident, even asserting that liberalism is obsolete, and tout their authoritarian models as preferable to democracy.
But if democracy’s advocates were prematurely triumphant 30 years ago, I would venture the same for those declaring the inevitable triumph of illiberalism today.
For while democracies no doubt are undergoing stress, democracies are not uniquely subject to the growing political dissatisfaction around the world.
From Moscow to Managua, Khartoum to Cairo, Bolivia to Beirut to Tehran and Algiers, to right here in Hong Kong and beyond, citizens are taking to the streets in frustration to demand that their voices be heard, and that their government protect their rights, end corruption, and open the political system.
Even in those spots where former democratic success stories are famously regressing - places like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland - recent elections suggest that systematically chipping away at democratic institutions and appeals to xenophobia may have a limit.
What else can we learn from the record of the past 30 years and the widespread unrest we are witnessing today? First, as if those of us who live in democracies didn’t know this already - democracy is not easy. It’s messy, complicated, and imperfect, even if it is the best option available.
We’ve learned that while one can assist a country to develop basic democratic institutions and democratic processes in a relatively short timeframe, changing mindsets and building a new democratic culture is much harder and takes much longer. And progress will not move in a straight line.
We’ve learned we need to manage our own and others’ expectations about democracy’s ability to take root and deliver public goods quickly, particularly where underdevelopment exists and civic trust is low.
We’ve learned that identity politics is powerful. That economic dislocation combined with demagogic appeals can lead to electoral victory at least in the short run.
We’ve further learned that if the same old guys – and they tend to be guys – insist on playing the same old game despite the presence of a few new rules, it’s likely you’re going to get the same old result over time.
It is therefore important for achieving a different result that democratic systems open themselves up to new voices – young people, women, and other traditionally marginalized communities – if they are to become or remain vital.
It is instructive that even as surveys suggest faith in political institutions and governing structures in democracies around the world is declining, political participation is rising. I don’t need to tell anyone here in Hong Kong about that. This rise globally is led by women and young people, who are asking for more accountability, more transparency, and a seat at the table – at least!
So what we’re seeing is not a principled rejection of democracy but frustration over its absence or flawed practice. Which suggests that people around the world want more – or more precisely, better - democracy, not less.
Democracy vs. Autocracy
One reason is that the track record of democracy is clear. It is no coincidence that the democratic era that has prevailed since the Cold War has concurrently been a period of unprecedented international peace, and economic and social development worldwide – including right here in Asia. A vast majority of the world has benefited from an environment of democratic peace, and succeeded as a result of the good will, open markets and open societies of democratic nations.
Academic studies are conclusively proving a connection between democracy and economic development, public health, and quality of education. The reason, according to these studies, is pretty simple: in a democracy, governments are accountable to the people. The system incentivizes them to be responsive to popular needs.
History has shown by contrast that benevolent dictators are few. That’s because for all their self-proclaimed “efficiency,” autocrats have little incentive to consider the broader public interest as they govern. They have every incentive instead to care first, if not only, for political allies and others who safeguard their power, leaving problems, including citizen grievances, unaddressed.
It is an unfortunate fact of human nature that absent accountability, there will be abuse of power. Absent transparency and rule of law, there will be corruption. When power resides in a single individual, that individual will also receive the information he or she wants rather than the truth they need to hear, leading to destructive and misguided policies that cross borders.
And when that happens, recourse to peaceful change is closed. Extreme options emerge. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful change impossible will make violent action inevitable.” That’s what we’ve seen repeatedly around the world not just in recent years or even decades but over the centuries.
In short, democracy -- for all its faults -- works. It is not only the right thing as a moral matter but important to safeguard national peace and international security.
NDI in Hong Kong
It is this core belief that drives NDI’s work worldwide, including here in Hong Kong.
Given recent events, I think it’s appropriate for me to outline why NDI works in Hong Kong, whom we work with, and the work we do.
We began programming in Hong Kong in 1997. From 2004 to 2017, NDI maintained an office here. Our focus over the past 22 years has been consistent: to help support the citizens of this city to realize the full potential of democratic rights enshrined in the Basic Law, and promote continued international attention to the territory in the process.
One focus of our attention was simply on information gathering and sharing. For important reasons, the world focused most of its attention on the economic and political development of China, while focusing less on conditions here in Hong Kong, including progress toward realization of democratic principles enshrined in the Basic Law. Indeed, to address challenges, you must first identify them.
So since 1997, NDI has produced regular reports – 16 of them - through our “Promise of Democratization in Hong Kong” series to track the trajectory of political reform here. These reports gathered and analyzed the views of a broad, diverse group of stakeholders in Hong Kong – across the political spectrum, from academia and civil society to political parties and the government, among others. And we then offered the resulting reports as resources to Hong Kongers and the international community alike.
All of these reports are public – you can find them all, going back to 1997, on our website, “NDI.org.” The next report will be out in early 2020.
At the request of local partners, we have expanded efforts to empower Hong Kong citizens through research and training. NDI has recently supported a public opinion polling project with the University of Hong Kong to clearly capture citizen views of key democracy and livelihood challenges they face. This initial poll, released in 2018, was a quantitative insight that anticipated many of the drivers of the current protest movement. We intended the poll to serve as a wake-up call to those who may not have understood what was happening within Hong Kong society, and thus as the basis for constructive dialogue about a peaceful way forward in the territory.
This poll is available on the University of Hong Kong website. Results of a second field poll will be released very soon.
For two decades, NDI has worked with local civil society actors focused on rule of law and political reform to assist them to communicate more effectively with local and international audiences.
Years ago, NDI conducted political party strengthening programs that included both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing parties. At one point, NDI sent small delegations to observe and report on conduct of Hong Kong’s elections, as we have for elections in more than 100 places around the world over our 36-year history.
Finally, through the years, the Institute has supported programs for women, youth, and minority political participation. We supported a youth peer debate program, offered workshops to promote women’s inclusion in politics and policy-making, and brought technical experts on ethnic minority political participation to Hong Kong to share best practices.
That’s the work we’ve been doing here. In all cases, we have operated in a manner consistent with and in support of rights protected and democratic promises outlined in the territory’s Basic Law. We have not worked to support any particular political party or cause, but rather to help promote resolution of Hong Kong’s challenges through peaceful dialogue.
Now, it is probably not news to most if not all of you that Beijing has claimed NDI, among others, has been involved in promoting Hong Kong independence or fomenting rebellion as a so-called “black hand” here. Let me say conclusively: that is patently false. I suspect many of those making those allegations know it is patently false.
Let me say plainly: NDI is not and has not had a role, direct or indirect, in recent protests in Hong Kong. Or in any similar activities of the past. To suggest otherwise not only seeks to spread misinformation but also fails to recognize the organic activity here, which stems from genuine grievances. If that wasn’t clear to authorities before, it should be now given the results of the district-level elections two days ago.
The danger is that continued failure to look sincerely at the current situation – in this case, the real concerns of the people of Hong Kong about the erosion of their rights and overall direction of this territory - will likely result in faulty policies and ultimately destructive solutions that are in no one’s interest.
I should note as well that NDI as a matter of principle decries use of violence by anyone to resolve political differences. While violence may seem to be an appealing option given feelings of anger and frustration, NDI knows from three decades of experience that violence is counter-productive to achieving long-term political goals. Violent political movements are rarely successful but only harden attitudes, deepen divides and fuel continued conflict. And democracy is not advanced in the process.
What’s at Stake
In my view, the defining issue of our time is what rules, norms and values will guide nations and serve as the foundation of the international system in the 21st century.
For instance, will the world return to spheres of influence, or will independent nations – large and small - have equal rights to protect their sovereign interests as they see fit?
Will a country’s majority population have the right to impose itself unconditionally on minorities, or should minority populations have equal rights and protection?
Should truth and free expression remain paramount values? Or must the world adjust its values and standards to accommodate other countries’ feelings when the truth hurts?
Does national security require an Orwellian surveillance system that watches your every move, purchase, and facial expression, and grants you rights according to an unaccountable government-imposed social credit score?
Or will nations organize themselves under the assumption that true security will only come through a community of open societies and free peoples?
Are human beings just masses ready to be manipulated by greater power?
Or do they have inherent individual sovereignty?
In the end, what is more important, the glory of the state or the dignity of the individual?
The principle that people should have a say in how they are governed, that a government should be accountable to its people, transparent in its actions and inclusive of all citizens - these are basic values of human dignity. They are also values of democracy.
These values are today under siege. But they always have and always will be. The fact is history is never over. There are and will likely always be those interested in not only subverting democratic values at home but find it in their interest to subvert them abroad, whether through disinformation, corruption, coercion, or other tools of malign influence.
Thus it is important that those who believe in principles of freedom and democracy stand together in solidarity - across borders - to promote and defend these values, to protect them at every turn, peacefully, against those who would attack or degrade them.
So as the people of this city consider the way forward and work to make their voices heard, they should know that the same democratic spirit at work here is moving in other parts of the world.
Hong Kong is at the vanguard of a great global struggle in which millions of others are also engaged. It is a spirit that demands respect for basic values of free expression, and for accountable, transparent, responsive and representative governance that respects inherent human dignity.
It is a spirit that transcends cultural or historical context to embrace basic human yearnings.
Hong Kongers should know that even as many of us watch from afar, you are not alone. That free people everywhere stand with you. We wish you nothing but success in having your voices heard and achieving your dreams, despite the odds.
It has been an honor to be in this place at this time this afternoon. Thank you all for listening, and I look forward to the conversation that follows. Thank you.