June 2022

Authoritarian alarm bells

The choices of two new Asian government leaders last month go a long way to defining where the region places itself in the ongoing struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos, widely known as Bongbong, is due to be inaugurated on June 30 as president of the Philippines. The son of the more infamous Ferdinand Marcos, who from 1965 to 1986 ran one of Asia’s most corrupt and repressive dictatorships, he won in a landslide.

A day later, on July 1, John Lee, a former head of police, will take office as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. He was appointed, undemocratically and unopposed, by a committee comprising members loyal to Beijing.

Viewed through the prism of the West, currently countering a violent Russia and expansionist China, the Philippines and Hong Kong sit in two alternate camps.

The former British colony is now a rival entity, governed from the playbook of the Chinese Communist Party. The Philippines is a nascent, ramshackle democracy, but a democracy nevertheless and an ally which has security treaties with the United States.

Seen through the Asian prism, the situation is more blurred, and lays down markers on how Western powers should and should not react as rivalry with authoritarianism intensifies.

Both Marcos and Lee come from political cultures which, a generation ago, Western analysts were predicting would be crushed by the beacon of liberal democracy.

Lee’s skillset is policework, not trade and finance, on which Hong Kong’s global reputation is staked. He has been instrumental in suppressing the pro-democracy movement and jailing its leaders.

He is also a key figure in tearing up the Sino-British international treaty, which was meant to guarantee the freedoms and way of life of Hong Kong until 2047.

Beijing’s choice has sent an unequivocal message that its priorities for Hong Kong have changed. Security and patriotic allegiance supersede the creation of wealth through trade.

That of the Philippines indicates the ballot box attraction of fame, the strongman leader and the power of family with wealth and patronage.

The president-elect’s father was overthrown by a protest known as the People Power Revolution, the first in the late 20thcentury of several against post-Cold War dictatorships which swept the world with varying levels of success.

The Philippines has a young voter demographic. A 1980s’ teenage street protester would now be in their mid-50s, with children and grandchildren most likely deaf to their dictatorship war stories.

Social media feeds pit the depressing darkness of those earlier Marcos years against the false glitter and excitement artfully fabricated by this latest Marcos campaign.

In a similar way, China has constructed an alternate history for Hong Kong, juxtaposing British colonialism and the ‘Century of Humiliation’ against the bright lights of the Chinese dream managed by Beijing.

It is no coincidence that the upcoming leaderships of John Lee and Bongbong Marcos are being met with alarm from the West.

Lee is already sanctioned by the USfor his role in shutting down the democracy movement. The European Union, among others, has questioned the validity of his appointment.

Western monitors have condemned the Philippine election as being far from free and fair. It was, they say, corrupted by politically-motivated violence, rampant vote-buying, state and military-orchestrated interference, and so on.

Yet Asian countries have said little or nothing because, unlike Europe and North America, the region is a mesh of political systems thatneed to co-exist with as little antagonism as possible.

Polls indicate that most in Hong Kong want the promised freedoms embedded in the Sino-British treaty on the handover of power. Reality proves that China will no longer allow them. Neither street protests nor diplomatic leverage is likely to change that position. Britain’s guarantees have failed.

As a new-style regional rivalry deepens, it is important that Western powers think carefully on their dealings with these two very different entities of Hong Kong and the Philippines.

For Hong Kong, any sanctions directed against China should not negatively impact citizens of the former British colony. China might have torn up the One Country, Two Systems formula; Britain and the West must prove they have not.

For the Philippines, the popularity of Bongbong Marcos shows that the 36 years since his father’s ruleare far from enough to turn an Asian dictatorship into a mature democracy, particularly one that sprawls across an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands.

With weak institutions, the country stands vulnerable for Bongbong Marcos to follow in the dictatorial footsteps of his father.

Back then, the West supported martial law and brutal violations of human rights in the name of its Cold War ambitions.

This time around, that thinking must not be allowed to take hold.