How does democracy happen? Since the 1980s, a number of democracies have flowered in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America-and enough have floundered to spark a vigorous debate about what it takes to create a lasting liberal order. With the United States now attempting to foster democracy in Iraq through military conquest and occupation, and Washington hinting that Baghdad is merely the first step on the road to democratizing the entire Middle East, the question of how best to build a free society has become one of urgent practical importance.
For five years in the 1990s, I served as the last British governor of Hong Kong, overseeing its transfer to China while implementing a Sino-British agreement on how the territory should be run before and after the change of sovereignty. This responsibility placed me near the heart of the debate about democracy in Asia, and I developed strong views on the subject-views that I believe are relevant to the issue of political reform in the Middle East. Democracy indeed has universal validity and should not be withheld either on grounds of cultural specificity or economic weakness. However, it must grow organically from within a society. Outside pressure can and should be applied, but democracy cannot be imposed by force.
By any measure, Hong Kong a decade ago was a community ready for representative government. In fact, citizens of the colony should have been granted their full rights years earlier. But only belatedly, and partly in response to the Tiananmen suppression of 1989, were they offered an attenuated version of democracy and guarantees about the protection of their civil liberties.
I thought it neither honorable nor politically expedient to reinterpret what those promises meant. A fair election was a fair election; freedom of speech was freedom of speech. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I took steps to hasten its democratization and more deeply entrench the rule of law and civil liberties. These changes were too much for the Chinese government, which swept most of them away in 1997 after the handover.
The rumpus over Hong Kong's future came at a time when the notion of "Asian values" was much in vogue. Were there cultural reasons for several Asian countries turning their backs on democracy? Had the denial of free speech and the harassment of opposition politicians made possible the vaunted Asian economic miracle?
Several autocratic Asian governments claimed as much. This viewpoint was most forcefully expressed by officials in Singapore, notably former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who took every opportunity to deride my belief in the relationship between economic and political freedom. On one occasion, I found myself chairing a public lecture he gave in Hong Kong that turned into a root-and-branch denunciation of my position. Courtesy obliged me to listen in grim silence to a patronizing critique of the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong's citizens.
Like many others-prominent among them Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and now deputy defense secretary in the Bush administration-I argued that a Confucian society was not inherently hostile to democracy. Remember Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China; look today at Taiwan. Nor did I believe that a correlation existed between economic growth and the number of newspaper editors or trade unionists who were imprisoned. What is true of the Far East is equally true of the Near East. Freedom is a human aspiration, democracy is not inimical to development, and the case for the open society applies just as much to the Islamic world as to the Christian and the Confucian.
One can only claim that there is a cultural misfit between the Islamic world and democracy if one ignores Turkey and assumes that Islam is coterminous with the countries of the Arab League. But three quarters of the world's Muslim population lives beyond North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf-many of them in democracies of various shapes and forms, including Indonesia, India, and Malaysia. Moreover, within the Arab League there are hints, and more than hints, of democracy in several countries: Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan, for example. Going beyond the Arab world, what is happening in Iran surely represents the stirring of a genuine democratic debate.
Of course, democracy cannot be established overnight. A rush to elections before the establishment of what Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria has called "constitutional liberty" may serve as a cloak for autocracy rather than a defense against it. But I do not accept the thesis of Zakaria's new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, which states that democracy should on that account be withheld until prosperity has been achieved. Votes may not be a sufficient condition for building vibrant, pluralist societies. But they are a necessary one.
Indeed, free-market economies require transparency and the rule of law if they are to survive and thrive, and these conditions are more likely to exist where there is a lively public debate and representative government. The case was made the hard way by the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Crony capitalism was not, after all, the wave of the future.