“Where there is a will, there is a way” is an age-old saying; put it more directly and it becomes: “One who wills the end, wills the way.” This is a maxim that most people accept and it is also one that can be applied not only to individuals, but to nations as well. With this in mind, the UK and China have recently provided two interesting and contrasting examples of how national will, national ends and the national way can interplay and how they differ.
How is this so? First, in the past decade, both countries have expressed a similar will to host the Olympic Games, an international event the hosting of which is not without risk.
Both nonetheless saw the benefits of staging the Games — whether these were prestige, national accomplishment or even potential profit — and for both countries, these benefits obviously outweighed the costs and risks involved. In effect, China and the UK expressed a national will to enter this competition to host the Games, which each went on to win and subsequently find its own way to make the event a success.
On July 13, 2001, China won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, beating Canada, France, Turkey and Japan over two rounds of voting. Four years later, the UK followed suit and on July 6, 2005, it won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics in London. The UK beat France, Russia, Spain and the US over four rounds of voting. Both winners then faced the task of organizing the event in the time frame given to all host nations: They had seven years to pull it off.
China perhaps had the harder challenge of the two, as it had never hosted the Olympics before, while the UK had hosted two previous Games, though these were in the distant past (1908 and 1948).
China also faced greater challenges in infrastructure development and in the construction of suitable sporting facilities. Nevertheless, it answered the call and allocated a budget, estimated to be at least US$40 billion, to guarantee its success. The UK was luckier and came through with a smaller budget of approximately US$18 billion to US$20 billion.
Where there is a will, there is a way and in this instance both host cities and their corresponding countries did what was necessary to host the competition. London and Beijing each hosted more than 200 National Olympic Committees representing countries from all over the world and utilized a variety of venues.
Despite a few minor glitches and complaints from different circles, both nations essentially “pulled it off” within the seven-year timeframe.
Now switch to a different matter involving political will and goals and the results change.
The UK faced a challenge in 2011, when the Scottish Nationalist Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament. A major plank in the party’s platform was that it would push for a referendum vote on Scottish independence. Scottish First Minister and party leader Alex Salmond wasted no time in pressing this issue.
British Prime Minister David Cameron responded to this challenge, even though it threatened to split up the UK. As a course of action, Cameron decided to play hardball in agreeing with Salmond to hold the vote.
Under the agreement, the referendum would be a simple “yes or no” vote; there would be no third “devo max” choice that could give Scotland fiscal autonomy while staying in the UK. It would be an all-or-nothing vote by which Scots would choose whether to stay in the union with a “yes” or a “no.”
This agreement was signed in October 2012 and carried the requirement that the vote be accomplished within two years. An allowance to lower the voting age to 16 was granted to Scotland for the vote.
As the deadline drew near, Cameron’s hardball tactics seemed to backfiring. Polls indicated growing support for the “yes” vote and commentators warned that Cameron could go down in history as the prime minister who lost Scotland. Despite such worries, Cameron held true to his promise and the agreement; he insisted only that the vote be “legal, fair and decisive.”
He had willed the end and therefore chose to continue willing the way.
Ultimately, the referendum was legal, fair and decisive — Scotland voted 55.3 percent “No” to 44.7 percent “Yes.” Believing in democracy, the UK had risked a split and met the challenge of division head on.
Turn now to China, where one finds a different promise, a different vote and a different ruling party.
In 1997, when China took over Hong Kong from the UK, it promised Hong Kongers the right to directly elect their leaders in 20 years.
The vote that was promised was not one for independence or one to leave China. It was a simple vote whereby Hong Kongers could elect the leaders who both rule and represent them in Beijing. Hong Kong was not even to be given a devo max option; it was simply seeking the democratic right to choose its leaders.
After 17 years, the most that China has conceded to the people of Hong Kong on this promise is that they can elect a leader from three people pre-selected by Beijing.
For Hong Kong, the question of the Chinese Communist Party’s national will quickly became obvious, as did the contrast with its will to host the Olympics. If China can not only win an Olympics bid, but pull it off in seven years, why then can it not find a way to set up a simple voting system for Hong Kong in 20 years?
It is not as if elections have never been held in Hong Kong, nor it the case that voting is too complicated for Hong Kongers. There was no great cost and there was no great risk unless, oh yes, unless one considers that the whiff of democracy poses too great a risk for the politburo that rules China and claims to honor Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) “Three Principles of the People,” representing government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Where there is a will, there is a way. One who wills the end wills the way. Obviously, the end that the rulers of China are willing is at odds with its previous promises and any sense of democracy.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.
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