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Published: 01:32, July 28, 2021 | Updated: 09:50, July 28, 2021
District councils back to the past, minus the politics
By Regina Ip
Published:01:32, July 28, 2021 Updated:09:50, July 28, 2021 By Regina Ip

Hong Kong’s district councils underwent a sea change after the landslide defeat of pro-establishment candidates in November 2019, in politically fraught elections held amid a background of violence and intimidation.

Not including seats held by ex officio rural committee chairpersons in the New Territories, pro-establishment candidates managed to retain only 59 out of a total of 479 seats in 18 districts. 

In the absence of checks and balances afforded by elected representatives from a broad cross-section of society, the performance of the newly elected district councilors provides a window on the dysfunctional nature of local administration when members were driven solely by outsize political ambitions.

Tales abound of actions and resolutions, bordering on the absurd, if not criminal, made by the district councils dominated by self-proclaimed democrats.

In March 2020, district councilors Leos Lee Man-ho and Andy Lao Ka-hang from the Civic Party posted a blatantly discriminatory notice at their joint office saying that “members of the blue (pro-establishment) camp and dogs not allowed to enter”.

In April 2020, district councilor Edith Leung Yik-ting from the Democratic Party posted on her billboards a portrait of Chairman Xi Jinping and a defaced national flag suggesting that the Communist Party of China was responsible for spreading the coronavirus to the world.

In May 2020, arising from a dispute about the remit of district councils, the District Commissioner of Central and Western district was blocked in her office for four hours by district councilors from the pan-democratic camp. 

Since these bogus democrats took over, funding for popular community activities was axed, and local public works projects approved by their predecessors overturned. Yet funds were approved by several district councils to a pro-independence organization, Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, to organize competitions in “essay-writing” in Cantonese, in an effort to keep out mainland cultural influence.

On May 21, 2021, the Public Offices (Candidacy and Taking Up Offices) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Ordinance 2021 came into effect. This new law not only extends the oath-taking requirement to district councilors, but also explains the meaning of a reference to uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, by spelling out “positive” and “negative” lists of actions which would disqualify candidates or incumbents from holding public office. The “negative” list includes actions which signify refusal to recognize China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong or Hong Kong’s constitutional status, or participation in activities which promote independence or self-determination.  

Experience since the reunification has shown that the adversarial nature of competition for district council seats in small constituencies with an average population of 17,000 contributed neither to the forging of harmonious communities at the local level, nor the grooming of political leaders with a broader vision

Knowing that they are on borrowed time, rogue district councilors resigned fast and furious after they woke up to the reality that they could be asked to pay back salaries and allowances received since they took up office, if they are disqualified under the new legislation. By the latest count, the chairpersons in 10 out of 18 district councils have resigned. The membership of at least three district councils has been reduced to three only.

The government has made clear that with three important elections — relating to the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and the chief executive — coming up in the next eight months, it would not hold by-elections to fill vacant seats on district councils. With district councils reduced to a shadow of their former healthy and vibrant selves, questions are rightly being asked on the role district councils will play in the remaining two years of the existing term.

To answer this question, it is important to note that the Basic Law makes no reference to “district councils”. Article 97 of the Basic Law says, “District organizations which are not organs of political power may be established”, to be consulted by the government on “district administration and other affairs, or to be responsible for providing services in such fields as culture, recreation and environmental sanitation”.

In accordance with this provision, it makes sense to strip district council members of their right to vote for the chief executive, since district councils are not “organs of political power”.

Under Article 97, the government has the discretion to consult district councils on district administration and “other affairs”, presumably those which have a general or particular impact on residents, such as the charging program for municipal solid waste, or district planning or transport issues. Pressing the “five key demands” of the 2019 rioters, or querying the role and functions of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, would clearly lie outside the remit of district councils.

The history and background to the establishment of district councils would shed useful light on the original intent behind their establishment in the colonial era. The British Hong Kong administration found that districts in the New Territories benefited from the strong role played by New Territories district officers in coordinating district administration and implementing new town development. They were vested with land administration powers, and were generally of sufficient experience and seniority to play a strong hand in steering district administration.

After the Kowloon disturbances in 1966, the British decided to replicate the New Territories administrative system in the urban areas, and appointed a city district officer in every urban district. The city district officers would chair city district committees to consult appointed local representatives on district affairs, and district management committees to coordinate the work of local officials.

After the British learned that China was determined to resume exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong as from July 1, 1997, they started to remake Hong Kong in the image of their political system. They decided to introduce an elective element in Hong Kong’s governance system to curb Beijing’s power. 

Since 1982, elections to district consultative bodies renamed “district boards” were introduced, initially in the New Territories and extended to the urban areas in 1983. They were later renamed “district councils”.

Under pressure from the democrats to further expand the electoral element, the last remaining appointed seats on district councils were removed in 2016, resulting in the loss of a significant number of experienced, public-spirited citizens who provided advice as a public service, not as full-time appointments with enhanced salaries and allowances.

Experience since the reunification has shown that the adversarial nature of competition for district council seats in small constituencies with an average population of 17,000 contributed neither to the forging of harmonious communities at the local level, nor the grooming of political leaders with a broader vision.

As the current administration is already fully occupied with implementing the new National Security Law for Hong Kong and improvements to our electoral systems, it is unlikely to be able to address fundamental issues relating to the future of district councils until the policy preference of the next leader, or the existing one in her second term, are clear. But lessons can be learned from the original design of district bodies in the colonial era, which had a strong focus on coordinating municipal services, and benefited from input from ex officio members, appointed members and elected members. Electoral boundaries could be redrawn to attract talent with a broader vision.

The author is a member of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 


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