Young stars aim to empower district seats
Au Nok-hin, Lo Kin-hei and Ben Chung Kam-lun have a lot in common: they are pan-democrats in their twenties who won seats in this month's district council elections.
The trio also shares the same political vision of their district councillor posts as life-long, full-time careers, instead of as traditional stepping stones to the city's legislature.
'We hope to empower the district councils, to allow citizens to have real participation in shaping the community,' said Au, 24, who won in Lei Tung I, Southern District, for the Democratic Party in his debut campaign.
'If the district councillors can have more concrete power, instead of simply distributing welfare ... it may not be necessary to scramble to the Legislative Council.'
Several pan-democratic heavyweights - including Albert Ho Chun-yan and Lee Wing-tat - began their careers on district councils before moving on to Legco.
Au said he found voters were increasingly interested in full-time district councils with wider powers. Current councillors have part-time status and hold full-time jobs.
'The current district council is more of a consultative structure, without real power,' said Au, a graduate student of politics at Chinese University whose thesis is on the functions of district councils.
'At least the then Urban Council [which was scrapped in 1999] used to have the power to approve applications for alcohol licences.'
But his colleague Lo, 27, who won in the neighbouring Lei Tung II constituency, is less optimistic about structural changes in the municipal councils.
'Devolving power to the district council could be a very, very slow process,' said Lo, a full-time community worker and deputy chief campaigner with the youth think tank Roundtable Community. 'What I want to do is to arouse the interest of residents to participate in social issues, from those that affect them to those that affect society as a whole.'
Lo is no stranger to the more than 25,000 residents of Lei Tung estate's eight blocks. He lost in the district poll in 2007 by a mere 27 votes. Then, instead of getting a stable job with his social-work qualifications from the University of Hong Kong, he chose to work in the community as a lawmaker's assistant, earning only HK$13,000 a month.
Some big players in the pan-democratic camp - which suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls - attributed their poor results to perks distributed by the pro-government camp. Although many democrats denounced such practices, Lo said such 'sweeteners' are not necessarily evil.
'Organising tours and parties offers me the [chance] to educate the masses,' said Lo, who won with a 300-vote margin. 'When the residents are all riding in a bus on their way to a picnic, they have no choice but to listen to me talking about Lei Tung's issues and democratisation.'
Chung, the youngest district councillor at 22, agrees that the post should be full-time work and involve wider powers.
'A revolution in district administration - involving citizens in the policymaking process - could give a greater sense of satisfaction than even implementing universal suffrage,' said Chung, who has been a district volunteer since he was 19. 'It could totally change the executive-led system [in which the administration dominates the policymaking process.]'
But not all young political activists agree with the full-time option, including Sunny Chan Tsz-kit, 25, who was defeated in the district council elections after fighting an impressive battle in Lai Ching, Kwun Tong.
'If a good system is in place, then being a district councillor full-time is not necessarily the best situation,' said Chan, who received more than 2,500 votes in his first election. 'And full-time district councillors could easily lose their vision, and merely work for the votes to keep their seats.'
He prefers an emphasis on the professional skills district councillors can offer. An economics and finance graduate from the University of Hong Kong, the Civic Party member said he would use the next four years to gain business experiences and get a professional qualification to serve residents better.
'I hope to build my knowledge of property management, so I can serve Lai Ching with professional knowledge about related issues,' Chan said.