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Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 10:45
Time ripe to rid District Councils of politics
By Raymond Li
Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 10:45 By Raymond Li

Cliché as it sounds, politics is compromise, and in brokering certain political agreements, what becomes customary sometimes may soon be accepted as right. This epitomizes the current political role of Hong Kong’s District Councils (DCs), which comes into question considering the constitutional underpinning of the Basic Law.

Coming on the heels of the recent decision by the National People’s Congress to improve the HKSAR electoral system and the unanimous endorsement on Tuesday by the NPC Standing Committee to amend Annexes I and II of the Basic Law, under which, among other changes, district councilors will be weeded out of the future composition of the Election Committee, the fate of the councils in terms of their contentious political function warrants our serious rethink.

One must acknowledge that the DCs, known as district boards until 1999, were first established during the colonial times in 1982, with the objective being to improve coordination of government activities in the provision of services and facilities at the district level as district advisory boards. That role didn’t change even after the handover in 1997. But in 2010, government-proposed political reform granted new power to DCs by allowing five district councilors to be elected to the Legislative Council by members of the new general electorate who did not otherwise have a functional constituency vote. With the creation of these “five super seats” in the legislature, together with 117 district councilors sitting on the city’s Election Committee, the political power of the DCs in Hong Kong’s electoral system increased. 

Nevertheless, such political compromise by the then HKSAR administration seems to have overlooked the constitutional limit as expressly set out in Article 97 of the Basic Law, which provides that district organizations which are not organs of political power, are to be consulted by the HKSAR government on district administration and other affairs or to be responsible for providing culture, recreation and environmental services. It is conceived that the aforesaid political roles of DCs seem to have run contrary to the Basic Law provision. Adding fuel to fire, no sui generis legislation has been enacted by the HKSAR government according to Article 98 of the Basic Law, which prescribes the well-delineated function of DCs and any disciplinary mechanisms for DC members who fail to discharge their official duties. No wonder critics decrying the politicization of DCs have incessantly been heard. 

In the wake of the forthcoming electoral reform, the time is ripe to restore the constitutional role of DCs as “not organs of political power”, and more time and resources can now be focused on resolving the myriad deep-seated socio-livelihood issues at the district level

Worse still, following the opposition’s landslide victory in the DC elections of 2019, in which its members won a majority in all but one of 18 districts, it is not difficult to imagine that the DC meetings, which used to be forums for discussion on community affairs on the district level, have become political battlefields whereby the majority of district councilors from the opposition camp, riding on fervent public sentiments stimulated by the radical few against the government, have been seen trading barbs with government officials hardly on any imminent district issues, but on political issues way beyond the scope of DCs. In the absence of any checks and balances against the political maneuvers by the opposition mavericks in DC meetings, it is forgivable for government officials to bow out of such frivolous, meaningless political debates that serve nobody’s interests.

Enough is enough of opposition district councilors riding roughshod over the established order and DC meeting procedures, leaving the districtwide community interests unattended, which is utterly unacceptable. With the prospective adjustments to the composition of LegCo and the Election Committee in the pipeline as part of the proposed electoral overhaul in Hong Kong, it can’t be more perfect timing to put the “house” of DCs in order. These adjustments reflect the constitutionality of DCs, as prescribed in the Basic Law. Corollary amendments should be made to the District Council Ordinance to clearly demarcate the functions of the DCs and the terms of reference of the DC members strictly in accordance with Article 97 of the Basic Law. In short, against such a constitutional backdrop, the political power of DCs will be rightly scrapped. 

Having said that, the proposed ring-fencing of DCs from exercising political functions not constitutionally entitled to them under the Basic Law is never a targeted measure against any particular political group, including the opposition. Indeed, in the wake of the forthcoming electoral reform, the time is ripe to restore the constitutional role of DCs as “not organs of political power”, and more time and resources can now be focused on resolving the myriad deep-seated socio-livelihood issues at the district level. More importantly, disabling the DCs as a springboard for LegCo seats can also institutionally exclude opportunistic politicians who merely pursue the LegCo seats with no real interest in or concern for district administration issues. 

In the long run, in light of the poor attendance rate for the DC meetings by quite a number of DC members who are also LegCo members, the eligibility of such “dual-roled” politicians, regardless of those from the opposition or the pro-establishment camp, should be subject to review. Considering the voluminous time and effort required for each DC or LegCo seat, it is not hard to imagine those who put on two political hats may find it difficult to discharge their public duties equally well in the two constituencies they belong to, compared to other full-time DC members. After all, constituents’ interests should be of utmost importance, and any compromise of which for the advancement of a politician’s political power is unacceptable. Any DC seats should always be reserved only for those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the district administration affairs with unsparing efforts. 

As James R. Sherman, the US author, famously notes, “You can’t go back and make a new start, but you can start right now and make a brand new ending”. Amid the sweeping electoral overhaul, it is hoped that the constitutional function of the DCs usurped by the opposition currently in power will be restored, and all the polarizing political melodrama staged by the opposition in the DCs will very soon be left in the dust for the sake of greater social stability and harmony.   

The author is a Hong Kong practicing solicitor and chairman of Y Legalites.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect those of the law firm where he works nor those of China Daily.

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