If Hong Kong Can Have a Pro-Democracy Movement... Why Can't the United States?

As riot police faced off with protesters holding umbrellas in Hong Kong on Saturday, a demonstrator between them held a placard reading "Occupy Central." (Photo: Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

If Hong Kong Can Have a Pro-Democracy Movement... Why Can't the United States?

Why haven't American voters recognized how much they have in common with the tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens who are now battling a false democratic system?

On Wednesday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC and made headlines for more or less telling the U.S. government not to interfere in matters concerning the pro-democracy movement that has engulfed the Chinese-administered territory of Hong Kong.

"The Chinese government has very firmly and clearly stated its position," stated Wang Yi as he stood beside Kerry outside the State Department building. "I believe for any country, for any society, no one would allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That's the situation in the United States and that's the same situation in Hong Kong."

"In America, we have accepted [democracy corrupted by big money] as as American as apple pie." --Lawrence LessigFor his part, Kerry offered the Obama administration's message that it objects to aspects of China's anti-democratic policies in Hong Kong, specifically their refusal for universal suffrage, and said he hopes "that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect the protestors' right to express their views peacefully."

And though it's a well-worn talking point--articulated here by the Guardian-- that the US has "always walked a delicate tightrope in its relations with China, eager to improve trade and economic ties with the world's second largest economy while also pressing for greater human rights"--Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, in an op-ed on Wednesday, argues that what's most striking dynamic about the situation in Hong Kong is not how leaders like Wang Yi and Kerry are delicatedly skirting the realities of their own self-interest, but why voters in the U.S. don't recognize how much they have in common with the tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents who have recognized how corrupt and nonexistence their democratic has become.

In Lessig's opinion, when it comes to calling for democratic reforms and amassing in large numbers in the streets, U.S. voters "should be protesting, too."

Invoking the legacy of William "Boss" Tweedy, known for masterminding New York and national politics on behalf of his fellow elites in 19th century America, Lessig writes that contemporary voters in the United States have become as disempowered by the role of big money in electoral politics (he calls it the "green primary") as have Hong Kong citizens under mainland China's one-party rule.

"I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating," Tweed famously said. And for Lessig, that is the mindset that draws a straight line between China's Communist Party leaders and the corporate and wealthy elites in the United States who have so radically captured American democracy in recent decades.

Lessig writes:

Of course, we don't have a democracy "dominated by a pro-Beijing business and political elite." But as a massive empirical study by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page published just last month shows, remove the word "pro-Beijing," and the charge translates pretty well.

America's government is demonstrably responsive to the "economic elite and organized business interests," Gilens and Page found, while "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy." Boss Tweed would have been impressed.

The "green primary" isn't a formal bar to election. But it is certainly an effective bar. There isn't a single political analyst in America today who doesn't look first to whether a candidate for Congress has the necessary financial support of the relevant funders. That money isn't enough, and it certainly doesn't guarantee victory. (Only 94 percent of candidates with more money win.) But no candidate ignores the money, or is ignorant of the views of the tiny fraction of the 1 percent that provides it. That's not perfect control, but it turns out to be control enough to weaken the ability of ordinary Americans to have something other than a "non-significant impact upon public policy."

The surprise in the Hong Kong plan is not that it fits Boss Tweed's mold. The surprise is the reaction of her students, and now people. To imagine a proportionate number of Americans -- 5 million -- striking against our own version of Tweedism is to imagine the first steps of a revolution. But in America, we don't protest our "democracy with Chinese characteristics." In America, we have accepted it as as American as apple pie.

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