Those aren't elections
On the dangers of going along when powerful forces try to steal the language (and elections)
In an apparent lapse of judgment, the BBC tweeted a headline: "Pro-China candidates sweep Hong Kong election". The BBC's practice of putting quotation marks around single words in headlines can venture into downright ridiculous territory, but if ever there were a word calling for that treatment, "election" here would be it. The website headline is a little longer and a little more accurate ("Hong Kong: Pro-Beijing candidates sweep controversial LegCo election"), but it still misses a substantial point: It's not just that the "winners" are pro-Beijing, it's that they were pre-approved by the Communist Party.
■ And it's not merely that they "won", but that their would-be competitors were disqualified and in many cases imprisoned. Such a situation isn't an election in any sense of a free and fair contest among rivals who must win the approval of the public.
■ Calling a thing that merely goes through the motions of an election by the name does a disservice to democracy. It's not neutral to call them "controversial", either -- it's pulling a punch in a way that is fundamentally illiberal. The values of classical liberalism (like freedom, democratic self-government, and personal liberty) contend that these things are not just good, but that they are universal human rights. Denying them is, in fact, a violation of human rights. And calling their denial merely "controversial" is an act of surrender to the side that does the violating.
■ An institution doesn't have to intentionally participate in any kind of oppression to still contribute to lamentable processes like democratic backsliding: Merely surrendering ground on language can be enough to offer authoritarians the kind of cover they desire to grasp at a thread of legitimacy.
■ Naturally, democracy isn't a binary thing -- it is a continuum, marked by extremes. But just as there is a continuum from the tip of one's nose to the bronchia of one's lungs that moves from the obvious exterior of the body to the obvious interior, so there is a continuum on which some systems are obviously democratic and others are obviously undemocratic. It is clear that the central government in Beijing doesn't even intend for Hong Kong to be democratic -- it just doesn't want anyone to believe democracy ever existed there.
■ Respecting the language and calling things by their rightful names is essential to holding up freedom. It simply is. One of the hottest fundamental debates in America is over how to interpret the words of our laws, whether by original intent, strict textualism, purposivism, or another approach altogether. That we debate these things is a sign of health: We know that the words themselves matter, but we have to contend with how exactly to keep them in continuity as the language itself (as part of society) naturally evolves around them.
■ Anti-democratic powers have no such compunctions. Words mean what the powerful want or need them to mean at any given moment. China's government calls itself a "people's republic", but out of 1.4 billion people, only one out of the 25 members of the Politburo is a woman. And, of course, there's only one party from which to "choose".
■ And when cavalier hijacking of words alone isn't enough, they'll change the numbers, too -- from inflating GDP figures right down to manipulating the number of stars on Amazon book ratings.
■ Honest reporting doesn't have to accommodate blatantly dishonest practices in order to be fair. Neutrality of factual reporting still requires fidelity to the facts themselves, no matter how the actors involved represent the facts. And an "election" that is neither free nor fair deserves skeptical quotation marks, at best. In reality, even that gesture likely offers the event too much legitimacy, and legitimacy is what the power-hungry crave.