A women's manifesto

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 July, 2010, 12:00am

The talk is that Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the former president of the legislature and current member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, is poised to contest the next chief executive election in 2012. If Fan does - and wins - she would not only be the first woman in Hong Kong to have been at the helm of the legislature, but also the first to hold the highest position in politics. That wouldn't be too bad, given that a mature democracy like Australia has only just got its first woman prime minister.

So we can be happy in the knowledge that we live in a truly cosmopolitan and open society where we like the sound of women warriors roaring. Or can we?

We can, if we look at how the city's women have risen up the ranks of power: the examples of Lydia Dunn, the 'handbag brigade', and democracy advocates deserving of the 'goddess' title show that Hong Kong's women have made significant headway not only in the corporate world but also in politics. These women proved themselves tough and able, fighting in traditionally male-dominated establishments and coming out on top.

We now have 76 (18.8 per cent) directly elected women district councillors. Of the 164 women who ran in the 2007 district council elections, 46.3 per cent of them won their seats (against 44.3 per cent for men), indicating that gender is not an issue for the general electorate.

The 2007 Legislative Council by-election battle between Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee drew a historical high for by-election turnout (52.6 per cent). The all-female ticket fielded by the Civic Party in the 2008 Legco poll got two women elected.

Women now make up 18 per cent of our legislature (seven in geographical constituencies and four in functional constituencies). Our figures look pretty good - better than our counterparts in the United States, where women have 90 out of the 535 seats (16.8 per cent) in both houses of the US Congress.

Women of political influence are, of course, not just represented in elections. Hong Kong's key political appointment system put even higher percentages of women in decision-making positions. Currently, 26 per cent of our ministers, 21 per cent of non-official Executive Council members, 44 per cent of undersecretaries and 30 per cent of political assistants are women.

Women have indeed come a long way in Hong Kong. There are more of us now (100 women to every 90 men) and we live longer (by 5.7 years). In the absence of a quota system, which has proved to be hugely controversial elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong has nurtured the progress of its women. And it is hoped that one day, preferably soon, we may get the representation of our women in the legislature up to the levels seen in places where shortlists or quotas for women have been embraced - 56 per cent in Rwanda; about 40 per cent in South Africa, Argentina and Costa Rica; and 38 to 47 per cent in Nordic countries.

Here in Hong Kong, there has not been much public debate on the topic so far; this needs to change. To their credit, our female politicians have got to where they are in their own right. Alas, once they have secured their spot in politics, not much has been done to get others on board, and women's issues are hardly addressed.

Two political parties in Hong Kong are headed by women but, generally, women do not rise fast through the system. Starry Lee Wai-king of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and Tanya Chan of the Civic Party prove it can be done, however.

Last month, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Mizuho Fukushima, chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party of Japan, showed the world again that women can beat their male counterparts. Isn't it time for women to bring other women on board? And if Fan is serious about running for chief executive, shouldn't we be asking her to address these very issues?

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA