kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am

The next election for the Legislative Council is two years and five months away. So how come there are hundreds of large posters throughout Hong Kong trumpeting the virtues of politicians? A good question, and one that must have occurred to many people seeing gaudy posters bearing the grimacing likenesses of holders of public office.

The placards are not put up by people immediately seeking office. They bear messages from those who already sit on the Legislative Council or a district council. You know the things I mean. All over Hong Kong, posters 1 metre by 21/2 metres long are strung on roadside railings.

They commonly show a politician with a statement about what a fine person they are and a proclamation on their values or beliefs. Every Legco member of a geographical constituency is allowed to stick up 50 of the lurid proclamations in every district in their area. This explains why there are 200 placards in Tai Po, Sai Kung, Sha Tin and North District publicising the work of New Territories East Legco representative Emily Lau Wai-hing. Positioning of placards is administered under the grandiosely named 'management scheme for the display of roadside non-commercial publicity materials implementation guidelines'.

If you can understand this, good luck to you. It's all most confusing and made even more so because, while the Lands Department is responsible for giving permission for people to put up political posters, it is, for some reason, the job of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to root out illegal posters and pull them down. Clear so far? Also, the rules and regulations about who can put up posters and where were introduced in the spring of 2003 at the same time as Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was named head of Team Clean. Part of the task of Team Clean in fighting Sars was to get rid of unsightly posters. Still with me?

One of the politicians who seems to understand the baffling rules is Choy So-yuk, an elected DAB member for Hong Kong Island in Legco and also a member of Eastern District Council. She explains that during elections candidates are allotted a specific, limited number of spaces they can hang placards.

If these are not removed 10 days after the polls, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department can tear them down and bill the candidate. However, once a politician has won a seat on either a district council or on Legco, they get to stick up a lot more posters. The reasoning behind this is that the sitting members can tell the public what they are doing for the general good. In the case of Ms Choy, she has the right to put up 10 posters between North Point and Chai Wan because of her district seat.

She can put up 50 more in every district on the island; that means with Central and Western, Wan Chai, Southern and Eastern Districts she could have another 200. However, she is comparatively restrained. As you trundle along in a tram or try to cross the road, you have Ms Choy staring at you in 80 different places.

Why are politicians so keen on having their faces staring out at the public when there is no poll on the horizon? The answer is obvious. It's a low-cost way of getting a high profile, stamping your image on the public consciousness. 'Banners are popular because it's such a good way to get across your message,' Ms Choy says. 'I can publicise my hotline where people can ask for help or send petitions. They have my telephone number and can call me. It's a good way of staying in touch with the people.'

There are strict rules governing where placards can be hung; if more than one politician wants a favoured spot at a crossroads, for example, there's a ballot to pick the winner. Busy pedestrian crossings are favoured spots, which explains why at some places there may be Democrats and Liberals hanging cheek by jowl with DAB and The Frontier Legco members.

Once a slot is allocated, the politician gets to keep it for four years until the next election, which must be a huge advantage as polls approach. But just before the elections, the slate is wiped clean and all candidates get an equal chance to apply for positions.

The system is extremely cumbersome, but fair. It's why, when you are waiting for the lights to change so you can cross a road, you find yourself eyeball to eyeball with a politician you probably hate smirking at you.