A show that lacks any punch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2006, 12:00am

The government last month released a consultation document entitled 'Review on the role, functions and composition of the district councils'. As usual, there has been very little discussion of the subject in our media, and politicians have all just cried: 'Give us more.'

I have long been an advocate of reforming district councils, to expand their role, upgrade their function and improve their composition. District councils (previously district boards) were created in the 1980s during the fight between China and Britain over the future of Hong Kong. District board members were encouraged to speak up on the subject as the voice of Hong Kong. When their political function diminished after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, they were quickly cast aside.

But the district boards were not abolished; they were kept for no other reason than the fact that they already existed. After the handover, the government pledged that the renamed district councils would assume some of the roles of the abolished urban and regional councils. Since then, nothing has happened. Strangely enough, or perhaps naturally enough, has nobody complained. Everybody seemed happy with the status quo - until, that is, the government's constitutional reform proposal again put district council reforms in the spotlight. The boat has been rocked, and the government has to be seen to be doing something about the councils.

Make no mistake, politicians do care about them. To them, district councils are part of their election machinery, maintained by the government with public money. They want more seats and more public resources to consolidate their power at the grass-roots level. As long as this happens, they do not really care about the councils' role, function or composition. The proposed reforms take extra care to keep this government-funded election machine intact. And our politicians will buy into the plans.

Now that expectations are heightened, both the government and politicians have to put on a show - but one with well-prescribed parameters. On one side of the ring, the administration will try to limit the reforms to those listed in the consultation document. These will mostly be of a decorative and inconsequential nature.

On the other side, the dissidents will try to elevate the district councils to district parliaments to further consolidate their power. As usual, there will be slogans and polls, but no research and analysis to support them. Also, they will not bother to consult the Basic Law, which classifies district councils as 'district organisations which are not organs of political power ... to be responsible for providing services in such fields as culture, recreation and environmental sanitation'. Anything more will be out of bounds. After some perfunctory punches from the dissidents, the government will carry on, executing its proposed reforms.

In the final analysis, the only reason for the existence of district councils is as incubators for future legislators. But to our power-hungry dissident lawmakers in the Legislative Council, this can only mean competition for their seats. Understandably, they are not too enthusiastic about it. But this incubating function can never be realised without an accompanying mechanism to facilitate upward movement, like the one provided by the constitutional-reform proposal roundly rejected by the dissident lawmakers last December. Without this underlying rationale and the ability to move upwards, any district council reform is meaningless.

Now you will begin to realise why our dissident lawmakers are not serious about constitutional or district council reform. It has nothing to do with democracy, but everything to do with power, and the jobs they want to keep. The consultation on district council reform is, therefore, just a mock fight, as the result has already been decided.

Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate