All for the people, without the people

‘WHEN YOU DON’T like whoever is in charge, you can vote them out. Right?’

It’s two in the morning, and I’m standing in the middle of the street outside my hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The speaker is a young xe om driver – one of those ubiquitous motorbike taxis that dart in and out of the traffic like busy mosquitos – and though he’s only twenty-six, the same age as me, Cuong has a wife and two children. On the ride from the canal-side bar back to my hotel, Cuong told me that this is his third job: during the day, he splits his time between working as a mechanic in a local garage and as a porter at a medium-sized hotel.

Eventually – as they all seem to here – our conversation turns to politics. Cuong gives me his interpretation of Australia’s political system: democracy, to him, means you can kick out the government when they do a bad job. He compares this to the situation in Vietnam, where there is no opposition party, no elections, no open criticism of the government. Instead of getting the boot, the government here is untouchable, regardless of their performance or the wellbeing of the people. The inevitable result of such immunity is corruption, at every level of power.

‘The police here are very bad,’ says Cuong, sounding angry. ‘They can stop you for no reason at all. And then they’ll just keep you there, on the side of the road, until you give them money.’

On the bigger political questions, Cuong is more fatalistic. Before my arrival in Vietnam, the international news had been all about the Chinese government’s unilateral move to place an oil rig off the disputed Paracel Islands (which the Vietnamese Government claims lies within its exclusive economic zone) in the South China Sea (a further sore point for the Vietnamese Government, who would rather it be known as the Eastern Sea – for a while, Lonely Planet’s travel guides were banned in Vietnam because they referred to that particular body of water by its Sino designation). The incident stirred up the uglier side of Vietnamese nationalism, with mass demonstrations in 2014 culminating in pogroms that saw scores of Chinese-owned – or at least, supposedly Chinese, but often Taiwanese or Korean – businesses burnt or destroyed and left up to twenty dead. But when I ask Cuong about the sea dispute he simply shrugs his shoulders.

‘That’s a matter for the rich,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t concern the poor.’ After a pause he adds, ‘Unless there’s a war with China. Then it’s us who will be fighting.’

Conscription aside, Cuong’s primary concern is corruption, a topic he keeps circling back to. The fact that we vote for our leaders in Australia strikes him as particularly important. Who would vote again for a corrupt leader?

By this point I’m conscious that we’ve been standing in the middle of the road for half an hour, undisturbed by the occasional xe om that skirts easily around us. But Cuong presses me for an answer to his question. ‘That,’ he says, referring to the endemic corruption, ‘would never happen in Australia, would it?’

My mind turns to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the New South Wales parliament, to the influence of mining lobbyists, and the periodic scandals surrounding police drug squads. But it feels churlish to disagree so I nod my head. That’s right – nothing like that ever happens in Australia. We’re a democracy, after all.


A FEW MONTHS after my late night chat with Cuong, I woke up back home in Melbourne on a perfect spring morning to vote in the Victorian state elections. My nearest polling booth was only a few hundred metres down the road, in a picturesque Anglican church hall, and walking there it felt as if I were approaching a school fete. Loose bunches of people wandered in the same direction, chatting happily about the weather and their plans for the summer. Out on the footpath, on the perimeter of the church grounds, a small number of volunteers handed out how-to-vote cards for parties across the political spectrum: from Family First and the Australian Christians, through Liberal and Labor, to the Greens and the Animal Justice Party. Despite the range of political opinions everyone is civil – any rivalry seems pretty friendly. As an old high school friend once said, to explain why he voted the way he did: ‘It’s like picking a footy team isn’t it? You just barrack for the team your parents go for.’

Before lining up to vote, I made a beeline for the sausage sizzle. In front of us, a father tried to explain the preferential voting system to his young son. It was the closest thing to a political conversation within earshot – unless you count the middle-aged men guffawing about the Sex Party – and most people stood in line quietly, browsing their phones or idly reading their little stack of how-to-vote cards before depositing them, with all the others, in the bin by the door.


JUST BEFORE WE got inside the hall, a portly man with a Santa Claus beard came out to apologise for the wait. ‘Thanks for your patience, folks,’ he said. ‘We’ve got as many staff working as possible, but there’s been a bit of a rush in the last half hour.’ Most of us looked slightly bemused – we’d been waiting in line for no more than ten minutes. ‘Don’t worry,’ he assured us, ‘we’ll get you through as quickly as possible.’

He was good as his word, because I was soon standing at a cardboard booth with my ballot papers, having given my name and address to a kindly lady who ticked me off the roll in the manner of a schoolteacher. Dao, André: present. At the booth, I took the time to vote below the line for the upper house, something only 5 per cent of Australians bother with. But I didn’t do much research beforehand, so after making some on-the-spot decisions, I folded up my ballot papers and handed in my vote.

And then, less than half an hour after I’d left the house, I was strolling out of the church grounds to enjoy – along with the rest of the state – my Saturday afternoon, safe in the knowledge that I’d just exercised my democratic rights.


SOME DAYS, IT felt like everyone I met in Vietnam wanted to talk about democracy. What struck me about these conversations was the sense of proximity that underpinned them. For every single person I spoke to about politics, it all came down to the same logic that Cuong had articulated: that a democratic Vietnam would lead to real material changes in their day-to-day lives.

In some ways, of course, they would be absolutely right. Before arriving in Vietnam for a three-month writing residency, I’d previously written about censorship there at an abstracted level, focusing on the conspicuous persecution of dissident bloggers who had received jail sentences of up to twelve years for criticising the government. Following the example of international NGOs, I concentrated on the hundreds of official media outlets, all owned by the government and controlled by the Ministry of Information and Communications, and the government’s ever increasing categories of sensitive (that is, unreportable) news: relations with China, land disputes, the medical conditions of top leaders.

It wasn’t until I was living in Hanoi that I began to understand the lack of free speech on an everyday level. My status as an inside outsider – a Viet Kieu, overseas Vietnamese – played a part, as strangers or recent acquaintances spoke to me openly about their hopes for democracy and their loathing for rampant corruption. But as suddenly as these conversations began – in taxis, over locally brewed bia hơi and at distant family weddings – they stopped again, with a jarring abruptness. Sometimes it was a third person butting in, to say jokingly – but nonetheless warningly – ‘What’s the good in saying that? You’ll just land yourself in trouble.’ But most of the time it was a kind of self-censorship, so crude that I could almost see the government’s hands on the levers of the speakers’ minds as they lapsed into an awkward silence, or backtracked, asking me not to ‘tell anyone about this’.

I’ve no doubt that democratic change would have a significant effect on that self-censoring mechanism. And yet, while in a country like Australia we take it as commonplace that the right to vote is foundational to our freedom and dignity, in practice the act of voting is somewhat less significant than Cuong and others in Vietnam might assume.

As I found during Victoria’s recent state elections, voting in its ideal form takes up very little time – especially in the context of elections that occur every three or four years. Voting is also opaque and anonymous – your vote doesn’t come with comments. In that respect it is unique in that here we have a political act that occurs in solitude, and whose significance is entirely symbolic. To answer Cuong’s question, my vote doesn’t kick anyone out of office. The significance of my vote comes only through a mathematical process of aggregation.

But voting’s true significance is not really the act itself, but the entitlement to vote. It’s that entitlement that makes us citizens, that stands as evidence that we do, in fact, live in a democracy. The importance of the symbolic value of voting is demonstrated by the campaigns for electoral recognition for the disenfranchised. The campaign leading up to the 1967 referendum, which granted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the dignity to be counted for electoral purposes, stretched out over ten long years. That campaign was – it had to be – an incredibly broad and powerful social movement that crossed the usual divides of class, gender, race and ideology. But following the successful referendum, that movement splintered – in the nearly fifty years since that watershed, progress on Aboriginal rights in Australia has failed to live up to the promise of that campaign.[i]

ONE WAY OF understanding that failure is that liberal democratic processes – especially voting – inevitably drain social movements of their energy. It does so by effectively saying to the movement, ‘Hey look, you have the right to vote now – so if you have anything else to complain about, do so with your vote.’ Voting – and consequently parliamentary politics – becomes the only legitimate way to channel one’s political energies. Even outside the right to vote, we can see the same process of corralling political energy into ‘legitimate’ institutions. In the US, the passing of the Civil Rights Act effectively put an end to the sit-ins and marches that convulsed the nation, without – as we have seen following the recent protests about police brutality – addressing the root problems at the heart of America’s dysfunctional race relations.

Of course the orderly calm that characterises the experience of casting your vote in Australia is incredibly commendable. But that calm – verging upon apathy – also characterises the tenor of everyday political discussions in Australia. We’re cynical about politics without any of the urgency that I found in Vietnam. All politicians are lying bastards, sure, but the fact that we’re able to say so without getting particularly incensed – outside of staged performances of outrage, performed for our social media followers and others who already belong to our tribe – betrays our lack of proximity to the political process.

That sense of growing distance is backed up by the numbers: according to statistics from the Australian Electoral Commission, a fifth of eligible voters didn’t cast their ballots in the 2010 federal election, and in 2013 a quarter of young people – a bloc of some four hundred thousand eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds – didn’t bother registering to vote.

Which is what leads me to the question: is the undeniable desire for change in Vietnam a desire for what we have in Australia? Is our democracy what Cuong really wants, and is it what he’ll be satisfied with?


BEFORE I CAN even begin to answer that question, I’ve already run into a definitional problem. I’ve been talking about democracy as if we all know what it is. After all, we’re constantly hearing about it – in sound bites, at protests and on the campaign trail – so surely we all know what it means. Like a Year 10 debating student, my instinct is to reach for that old fallback, the Oxford English Dictionary. And sure enough, there it is, democracy: ‘a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives’. But directly below we have further definitions: ‘control of an organisation or group by the majority of its members’; ‘the practice or principles of social equality’. So which is it, majority rule or social equality? Etymology is no help; the Greek demokratia comes from demos – the people – and kratia – power. We’ve all heard the chant: power to the people. But who are ‘the people’?

The definitional instability of this common term is such that the Australian Catholic University’s Research Node in the Sydney Democracy Network has been developing a database of different democratic theories. Their list – which continues to grow – is at 507. They range from the familiar (liberal democracy, direct democracy) to the frankly bizarre (marine democracy is a standout), and their sheer number and diversity should give us pause for thought when we hear phrases like ‘democratic change’. We should always ask, which democracy?

In the context of the spectacular success of the global human-rights hegemony, it’s worth rephrasing that question to ask, which form of democracy does human rights prescribe (indeed, if it does so at all)? Or as Singaporean academic Li-ann Thio put it in a 2014 paper for the Beijing Forum on Human Rights: ‘Does human rights then require a one-size-fits-all or uniform approach to political and economic systems? Or are there a range of systems which could live up to the objectives of human rights?’

It’s an important question because of human rights’ claim to universality, a claim exemplified by international legal scholars like Louis Henkin, who wrote in The Age of Rights (Columbia University Press, 1990) that ‘[h]uman rights are universal: they belong to every human being in every human society. They do not differ with geography or history, culture or ideology, political or economic system, or stage of societal development.’ This claim to universalism saturates the primary documents of the international legal order. The United Nations Charter begins with the words, ‘We the peoples of the world’, reflecting Henkin’s claim that the notion of human rights is a global language that doesn’t originate from any single specific culture. As Milton Friedman has put it, any and all of the differences of the past have been erased with the advent of the human rights regime.

But has difference really been erased? And if it has – is that something to celebrate?


DURING MY THREE-month stint in Hanoi, I worked at a local government-run publishing house, The Gioi Publishers. The Gioi specialise in publishing non-fiction about Vietnam’s history, language and culture for a foreign audience. They also translate Vietnamese works into a number of foreign languages, including English, French, Russian and Spanish.

Working at a government-run publisher afforded me some telling insights into the consciousness of the current regime. Economic reports for the past two financial years were overwhelmingly market-based, despite the official Marxist–Leninist line: chapters on non-performing loans, attracting foreign investment and the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement were followed up by token references to ‘Ho Chi Minh Thought’.

More telling than this fairly straightforward (and expected) propaganda of nostalgia was a small book called Dignity (2011) that I found on the shelves of Thé Gioi’s public bookstore. Dignity purports to be an introduction to the philosophy and justification of human rights, and finding a book with chapter headings like ‘Democracy’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Universal human rights’ at the heart of the government’s information network felt on the face of it, like a seismic change – another sign of the triumph of human rights.

But what had seemed like an earthquake was quickly reduced to mere tremors by the publisher’s note in the preface:

Due to the author’s meticulous research, this book has been published to serve as a reference guide to those who are interested in this topic. In this book, personal viewpoints are taken into account; however, not all of them support the orthodox viewpoints present in contemporary Vietnam.

We should note that, in addition to the universal permanent values of humankind, each nation or regime has its own particular features, which are conditioned by its geographical, cultural and social characteristics. Therefore, each nation builds a system of values that corresponds to the conditions that characterise each stage of its historical development. As a result, a system of values is always based on universality and particularity… In other words, there cannot be a development model or a system of values which is unique to or ideal for all human societies
or communities.

Of course, I hadn’t expected such a book to be published without some safeguarding caveats, and so the ruse that here was simply a ‘reference guide’ presenting human rights as a Western curio for intellectual – but non-political – edification, was relatively predictable. But what are we to make of the assertion of cultural and historical relativism that follows? Hadn’t the Asian Values debate been put to bed by the turn of the millennium?

Sparked off at the beginning of the 1990s, the Asian Values debate was the first serious challenge to the universality of human rights in the post-Cold War era. Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean diplomat, neatly summed up the relativist position at the time in a 1993 Foreign Policy article, entitled ‘Asia’s Different Standard’:

The Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] is not a tablet Moses brought down from the mountain. It was drafted by mortals.

The human origins of the Declaration, claimed Kausikan, meant that it inevitably reflected the values of the cultures that had the greatest hand in drafting it, and consequently failed to fully reflect the values of other cultures. As the Singaporean Government put it in a 1991 white paper on shared values:

A major difference between Asian and Western values is the balance each strikes between the individual and the community.

Asian societies, so the thinking goes, value communitarianism and harmony more than the individualistic West.

There was an element of historical relativism at play too. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and China, emboldened by burgeoning economic growth, had been the loudest voices proposing Asian Values. Kausikan argued that Asian countries tended to see ‘order and stability as preconditions of economic growth, and growth as the necessary foundation of any political order that claims to advance human dignity’. In other words, civil and political rights – the rights that underpin liberal democracy – might be well and good for advanced, industrialised countries in the West, but it was
too much to expect poorer countries to implement democracy without economic stability.

The debate around Asian Values was significant, in part, because human rights had been explicitly linked to economic development after the fall of the USSR. Philosophers like Amartya Sen argued that development in its truest sense – the conditions under which society allows for the fullest use of human capabilities – requires freedom. The argument is best illustrated by the nexus between the recognition of women’s rights and economic growth – the full participation of women in society obviously goes hand in hand with women’s full participation in the economy. But the economic success of East and South-East Asian countries in the 1990s – countries that did little to protect civil and political rights – presented a strong counterargument. It was no longer possible to say that only liberal democracies that respected rights could thrive economically.

For that reason, the economic collapse of the ‘Asian Tigers’ in 1997 played a significant role in undermining the Asian Values position. It was further weakened by Indonesia’s subsequent turn towards democracy, and Malaysia’s flirtations with doing the same. Even China began to change its approach – more than a little cynically – by releasing a counter-report to the US State Department’s annual report, documenting human rights abuses in foreign countries. China’s report, which documents the United States’ rights abuses, is of course part of the usual geopolitical games, but it is also a tacit acknowledgment of the fundamental universality of human rights, above and beyond the question of their actual protection.

Ultimately, the argument that Asian culture differs from Western culture so greatly as to justify distinct rights obligations failed because it was unmasked for what it truly was: an apology of power. In each of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and China, the concept of Asian values had been promulgated not by everyday citizens but by authoritarian governments. If anything, any mass movements of note in those countries appealed not to the supposedly native values of harmony and filial duty but to those ‘foreign’ rights that the West was supposedly forcing on the East. The lie of the Asian Values argument is given by people like Cuong, whose desire for justice and emancipation is expressed – to the chagrin of his government – in the language of democracy and human rights.

Yet here was that old argument again, in a book published in 2011, long after the debate had supposedly been settled. And just last year, in a paper for the Seventh Beijing Forum on Human Rights, Li-ann Thio pointed to the fact that Singapore was ranked ninth in the UNDP Human Development Report in 2014. Thio, who could be counted as one of Singapore’s most progressive academics – and certainly no opponent of human rights – nevertheless wrote that ‘[r]ather than a right to housing, the vast majority of Singaporeans enjoy housing’. This, she said, is to succeed not on paper, in the realm of law, but on the ‘more rigorous test of practical success’.


PERHAPS DOUBTS ABOUT the universality of human rights – and the liberal democracy it prescribes and promotes – have never gone away because there is more than a dash of truth in them. The fact is, the genealogy of human rights can be traced back to liberal European philosophy. The ‘human being’ of human rights, though ostensibly universal, actually follows the model of Immanuel Kant’s autonomous subject (with further nods to the bourgeois man of Hobbes and Locke). Universality, as international lawyer and academic Yash Ghai has put it, is based on the notion that ‘there is a universal human nature; this human nature is knowable; it is knowable by reason; and human nature is essentially different from other reality’. The ‘man’ in the Declaration of Human Rights is seen as a blank slate, an abstraction with as little humanity as possible – stripped of history in the form of class, gender and culture, and therefore ‘universal’ in the sense that he can be projected onto anyone and everyone – abstracted down to the essential elements of free will, reason and a soul. He is autonomous and, realising that autonomy is the basis of freedom, he is moreover separate from society – from all others around him – in
his autonomy.

Importantly, it’s not only the individual promoted by the international human rights regime but also a particular model of the nation state – one that looks a lot like the ideal of a Western liberal democracy. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sets out the minimum framework for such a democracy: to take part in public affairs either directly or ‘through freely chosen representatives’, and ‘to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections’, thus ‘guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors’. Article 25 enshrines the core liberal assumption that all political activity is institutional (occurring through the legislature and political parties) while political activity beyond the institutional sphere, such as mass social movements, is incomprehensible to international law. The paradox is that an emphasis on liberal democracy privileges the moment of institutional decision-making and ignores the social mobilisation – such as the campaign preceding the 1967 referendum or the civil rights movement – that forces the decision.

This is where a critique of human rights, or at least international human rights law, begins to hold water. For the claim to universality means that human rights law tends to take up the entire field of justice. And because international human rights law privileges institutionalised political activity, other forms of action become subsumed. We can see an example of this in the history of the radical labour movement, as socialist demands for the control of the means of production were watered down to the labour rights movement’s demands for a fair wage. Where non-institutional action can’t be subsumed, it may be ignored entirely, as evidenced by the UN human rights bodies’ continued uneasy relationship with grassroots activists, who are sometimes flown in to New York or Geneva to present evidence before various committees that nevertheless focus overwhelmingly on nation states. This helps to explain why the Asian Values argument, despite the disingenuous intentions of its chief architects, received so much serious consideration; the democratic project remains haunted by the spectre of its own democratic deficit. As Karl Marx wrote of the middle classes who put their faith in parliamentary democracy:

They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above.

What had applied to the European middle classes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries now applies to the non-West as a whole. It’s no coincidence that the first sentence of that quote from Marx forms the epigraph of Edward Said’s seminal work on postcolonialism, Orientalism (Vintage, 1978). In the book, Said borrows from Michel Foucault’s concept of power/know-ledge to explain how colonialism was constructed. He argues that the study of the Orient by the Occident (Orientalism) allows the West to turn knowledge of the Orient into the ability to categorise, manage and control. Consider the invention of ‘Indochina’, conceived of as literally the space – and more profitably, the trade route – between two great civilisations, India and China. Or the concept of South-East Asia – that collection of incredibly diverse nations, peoples, cultures and religions, which had never before been considered as a single mass – which was an invention of the Cold War, explicitly dreamt up as a buffer against encroaching socialism. As Benedict Anderson writes in The Spectre of Comparisons (Verso, 1998), ‘South-East Asia was more real, in the 1950s and 1960s, to people in American universities than to anyone else.’

Just as colonialism created manageable categories of the colonised, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council collects data relating to ‘international economic, social, cultural, educational and health’ matters. Even more tellingly, Article 73(c) of the UN Charter authorises nations administering non-self-governing territories (that is, Western nations governing non-Western peoples) to collect ‘statistical and other information of a technical nature relating to economic, social and education conditions’. The explicit aim is to create a yardstick for progress.

The spectrum of progress is now labelled ‘human rights’. Think tanks like the Hoover Institution in the US, whose motto is ‘Ideas defining a free society’, develop economic modelling to predict democratic transitions in non-democratic countries. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, has predicted democratic transitions across Asia in the next generation, based on alleged corollaries between a certain level of GDP and historic democratic transitions in other countries. Unsurprisingly, the same sort of thinking saturates the UN, whose Universal Periodic Review process will commend a country like Cambodia for making the appropriate level of democratic elections for its economic strength. In a strange way, this is the point at which the Western democracy exporters and the authoritarian Asian Values leaders agree: a poor country can only be expected to afford a budget version of the West’s full smorgasbord of rights.


FOR THE PAST two years – usually as the Australian Open is starting up or winding down – I receive a letter from at least one of my elected representatives. The letter is always the same: it wishes me a Happy Lunar New Year, in a variety of different languages. I recognise the Vietnamese, and what looks like Chinese and Korean. The English text varies but it’s only ever a variation on a theme: my elected member is committed to multiculturalism, and a series of values that seem plucked from the Asian Values debate – hard work, family, community. None of my housemates – who are all Anglo-Australians – ever get this annual letter. The only explanation for it is that at some point my name has been taken from the electoral roll, analysed and then entered into another database under a new category (presumably something like ‘East Asian’).

It’s a revealing – if trivial – example of the double bind of being counted and categorised, for it is both the source of my freedom and of my oppression. For it is by virtue of being counted and categorised that I have the right to vote. And it is only through the data collection described above that governments and international bodies can deliver the services and safeguards that I consider essential to my rights.

It’s no accident that former president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, cribbed lines from both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789 for the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. It was in part a deft geopolitical manoeuvre to secure the support of the anti-colonial Americans and the political left in France, but it was also because by using the language of rights, he hoped that the new nation of Vietnam would be counted and categorised among the nations of the international legal order.

In 1955, at the Bandung Conference, the Afro–Asian world accepted the human rights paradigm largely because of its links to anti-colonialism, and five years later they had their reward when General Assembly Resolution 154 (XV) on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was passed, acknowledging the rights of all peoples to self-determination. In other words, recognition by the established system is the pay-off for submitting oneself to measurement.

And yet, being counted leaves us vulnerable to arbitrary categorisation. My family have only ever half-heartedly celebrated Tet – Vietnamese lunar New Year – but the arrival of that letter each year classifies me in a way that is beyond my control, and independent of my self-conception. On a more serious level, the categorisation of voter blocs (the Western Sydney vote or the Hispanic vote in the US for example) lumps together a diverse range of people based on a single, arbitrary identifier. The logic of the census – whose chief function after all is to correctly apportion electoral representation – reigns supreme. There are almost two hundred thousand Vietnamese people in Australia, according to the latest census. But beyond that we know nothing about whether they are Vietnamese–Australian, an Australian of Vietnamese descent, or a Vietnamese person living in Australia temporarily.


IN FEBRUARY THIS year, a two-day democracy workshop at the University of Social Sciences in Hanoi was the first ever officially sanctioned academic conference on the topic. The only previous conference of a similar nature was more generally about political science, according to Jean-Paul Gagnon, one of the Australian Catholic University academics working with the Sydney Democracy Network putting together a list of the different theories of democracy. This time, says Gagnon, on returning from Hanoi, the workshop explicitly tackled ‘the D-word’.

The focus was on endogenous forms of democracy in Vietnam and Asia more generally. The central question is whether or not research can reveal a form of democracy that imports nothing from Western philosophy – papers included the non-hierarchical decision-making structures of a minority tribe from Vietnam’s mountainous central region (‘campfire democracy’) and the development of networked democracy in China.

According to Gagnon, the workshop was more open and frank than they’d expected (one Australian representative from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told them she had ‘no idea how this was allowed’). The presence of Professor Hoang Chi Bao, a member of the Party Central Committee’s Theory Council, was a marker of how seriously the Vietnamese Government were taking this question. Even more encouragingly, the workshop participants included a large number of young locals, especially on the second day when word got around on social media that senior Party officials and foreign academics were talking openly about democracy – which, it was argued during the workshop, had always been a feature of Ho Chi Minh’s thinking, in the form of his theory of ‘the people’s mastery’.

Listening to Gagnon talk, I get a sense of democracy’s glorious openness, its endless possibilities and permutations. No one knows – no one has ever known – what true democracy is, runs Gagnon’s argument, so why can’t there be a specifically Asian form of democracy, developed in accordance with its specific history, geography and culture?

On the other hand, the academics who flew into Hanoi might be nothing more than stooges – there to give a new intellectual sheen to the old Asian Values masquerade. As frank as the discussions were, there were notable gaps in the conversation – no mentions of environmental politics for example, and little talk of women’s rights or the struggles of minority ethnic groups. Workshop participants were also acutely aware of the security agents in the room – one in plain sight, stern and uniformed, and another a plant, surreptitiously using his phone to video the more outspoken locals. Proceedings were punctuated by the university vice-rector’s reminders that this was a scientific conversation, and ultimately it was clear that the Party’s primary interest in these conversations was the extent to which the realisation of Ho Chi Minh’s ‘mastery of the people’ would lead to economic development.

The workshop is a perfect encapsulation of the bind that good-faith critics of human rights and liberal democracy find themselves in. There’s every chance that one’s criticisms of the West, of the UN and its mechanisms for counting and measuring, will serve as an apology for authoritarian power. But to fail to criticise our own forms of democracy would be to fall into the trap of myopia.


‘ALLES FÜR DAS Volk, aber nichts durch das Volk’ – translatable as ‘all for the people, but without the people’ – was a motto used to characterise the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Joseph saw himself as the great Enlightenment monarch, whose reforms reflected his extraordinary concern for ‘das Volk’. Yet those reforms were limited by an arbitrary horizon – the supremacy of the monarch – which necessarily meant that for all his
reform he still ruled ‘without the people’. If we set liberal democracy as our horizon, then we risk being enlightened liberals just as Joseph was an enlightened absolutist – always failing to see how each reform falls short of our elevated ideals.

A few weeks after the democracy workshop, Hanoi’s officials were caught off guard by snap protests – mobilised by unprecedented social media outrage – over a decision to chop down 6,700 healthy, and iconic, Hanoian trees. In a country where street demonstrations of any kind are rare, it was remarkable to see protestors – who included scientists, prominent citizens and celebrities – climbing into trees and placing signs around their trunks that read ‘I’m a healthy tree, don’t chop me down’. One long-time Vietnam researcher noted that he hadn’t seen this proportion of young people at a public protest since the anti-war demonstrations in Saigon in 1964.

When asked about the protests, the people in the trees and on the streets didn’t just talk about their sentimental attachment to the trees that had been planted a hundred years ago during French colonialism. Instead, their concerns mirrored those of Cuong, the xe om driver – there were allegations of corruption, as the timber is valuable – plus anger over the lack of public consultation. As ever, the officials were clueless, with one responding to the protestors by claiming that ‘all citizens were in favour of the project’.

But, in the end, people power prevailed. The decision to cut down the trees was reversed, and scores of officials involved in the decision were suspended by the mayor, pending an internal investigation. Of course, the struggle for better accountability and transparency continues in Vietnam, as it does around the world. During last year’s Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong, the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told the Wall Street Journal that free elections would mean the domination of the majority,
the poor:

If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.

But he needn’t have worried. We’ve yet to find that better expression of democracy that would give full voice to the Cuong’s of the world.

[i] The original text was amended on 7 September 2015, to reflect the fact that the 1967 referendum did not confer voting rights. According to Megan Davis and George Williams, the 1967 referendum has 'achieved somewhat a mythical status that far exceeds the legal changes it actually brought about'. It enabled the federal parliament to make laws impacting on Indigenous people and for them to be counted in determining the size of electorates. The ban on Aboriginal people voting in federal elections was removed in 1962, the right to vote in the states was introduced at different times in each state. The 1967 referendum was described as a way of granting the full rights of citizenship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and is still used as a colloquial shorthand for this.
For further information, see Everything You Need to Know about the Referendum to Recognise Indigenous Australians (NewSouth, 2015).

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