District councils: Proposed revamp favors local communities

In 1982, the district councils were introduced in Hong Kong, with a very limited mandate. Barely a quarter of the seats were directly elected, and the emphasis was on allowing local communities to be more involved in district matters. The councils attracted responsible citizens, and, in conjunction with district officers, they attended to grassroots issues.

After 1997, the Basic Law envisages that the district councils will play a positive role in local affairs (Article 97). Their function is to provide advice to the government “on district administration and other affairs”, and to be responsible for “providing services in such fields as culture, recreation and environmental sanitation”. In other words, their mandate is confined to grassroots issues, with the Basic Law stipulating that they “are not organs of political power”.  

This, however, was not how many of the district councilors elected in 2019 saw things. Like some of their counterparts in the Legislative Council, notably the Civic Party, they espoused an anti-China agenda, and regarded their membership as a means of sabotaging the “one country, two systems” policy. They had no interest in the core functions for which they were elected, and delighted in spreading chaos throughout their districts. 

The council meetings, which were supposed to be considering welfare issues concerning their constituents, degenerated into shouting matches, and it became impossible for grassroots democracy to function, let alone prosper. Many of the district councilors had not the slightest interest in local affairs, but were obsessed with crude politicking, even supporting black-clad violence and separatist activities. Their focus was on dividing society, not promoting public welfare, and their communities suffered accordingly.

Indeed, apart from picking arguments with the police, abusing government officials and generally making a mockery of serious proceedings, they poked their noses into issues way beyond their remit, including constitutional reform and foreign affairs.

Through their shenanigans, the district councilors disgraced themselves and became an embarrassment to everybody else, and their unsuitability for elected office was plain. Once, however, they were required to prove their loyalty by swearing allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and committing to upholding the Basic Law in 2021, many of them knew the game was up.

While some were weeded out, others simply resigned, with some leaving Hong Kong altogether in order to make common cause with anti-China forces elsewhere. Of the 479 councilors elected in 2019, only 146 remain, and the system cries out for radical reform. After all, if they are to stay relevant, the district councils must get back to basics. 

It was, of course, scandalous that public money was wasted on the political saboteurs who infiltrated the district councils in 2019, and gleefully pocketed their ill-gotten gains. As the system has failed so miserably, the government would have been fully entitled to wind it up altogether, with local affairs being placed exclusively in the hands of district officers. Although it has now decided to keep faith with the councils, it takes the view that those who assume public office must be responsible citizens who are devoted to their constituents, committed to Hong Kong and loyal to China. It is hard to disagree with that.

There can be no role for people who wish to use elected office to harm the country, hurt the city, and promote the agenda of hostile powers, and the nightmare of the recent past must not recur

There can be no role for people who wish to use elected office to harm the country, hurt the city, and promote the agenda of hostile powers, and the nightmare of the recent past must not recur. With that in mind, a revamp of district organizations was announced by the government on May 2, with a focus on depoliticizing the councils and redirecting them to community-level livelihood issues. The next district councils are due to be elected by the end of 2023, and it is envisaged they will be involved in promoting policy, with no role in scrutinizing government funding.

In a root and branch reform, designed to ensure that only patriots run Hong Kong, the incoming councils will comprise 470 members, with 88 seats, spread across 18 districts, being elected through popular voting. Whereas half of the remaining seats (179) will be directly appointed by the chief executive, based on their local knowledge and experience, the other half (176) will be selected through indirect elections by three district-level committees, each of which has its finger firmly on the local pulse (the area committees, the District Fight Crime Committee and the Fire Safety Committee, comprising 2,490 members). There will also be places for 27 rural committee chairmen in the New Territories.

Anybody seeking direct or indirect election to a district council must secure at least three nominations from each of the three committees, and be vetted for national security purposes. A direct-election candidate will need nominations from 50 registered voters, and each voter can elect two representatives in each constituency. The directly elected members will cover larger areas in the future, given that there will only be 44 constituencies, down from the present 452.

Whereas previously, the councils elected their own chairmen from their ranks, the district officers, who have responsibility for municipal level administration, will, as in the 1980s, assume the chairmanships, a clear sign of executive-led governance in operation at the community level. It will also facilitate coordination between the various councils and other district-level bodies, something that has all too often been lacking in recent times. 

Another welcome development is the proposed monitoring system. Operating under the auspices of the Home and Youth Affairs Bureau, it is designed to ensure that district councilors do not fall down on the job, as so many of those elected in 2019 have done. In other words, it represents an important exercise in quality control, designed to give full weight to public expectations and weed out manifest failures.    

Whenever a democratic model fails, there are two options. Either the government can scrap the system entirely, or it can seek to improve it. It is, therefore, a relief for those who believe in democratic processes that the second course has been chosen, meaning all is not lost.

One size, however, does not fit all. After the previous system imploded, it is obviously sensible to try another that is more attuned to the circumstances of modern Hong Kong. The proposals will see councilors chosen by different methods, which is encouraging as it means that different experiences can be brought to bear in the councils.

Whereas some of the future councilors will have proven track records that will assist the work of the councils, others will be experienced in their fields and can rise to future challenges. There will also be room for talented people who may not yet have proved themselves but have real potential which should be tapped.

Once the enabling legislation is passed by the Legislative Council, the seventh-term district councils will be able to assume office on Jan 1, 2024. The proposals will not only enhance the effectiveness of district governance, but also promote greater coordination of policies at different governmental tiers, always desirable. As the district councilors will be patriots focused on prioritizing the public good, their communities will be the big winners, and who in their right mind could possibly object to that. 

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.