Slow pace of political reform puts Hong Kong’s competitiveness at risk

Functional constituencies can be part of a more responsive system, if subjected to popular vote

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2014, 11:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 5:40am

The majority of Hongkongers want a more democratic political system, but progress has unfortunately been slow.

Political divisions are giving rise to growing impatience and policymaking paralysis, a symptom found in some mature democracies. It is starting to take a toll on our city's competitiveness.

Hong Kong's functional constituencies have been held up as one of the key stumbling blocks to democratic progress. Because their representatives are not popularly elected - unlike in the geographical constituencies - and because they are seen to represent narrow and vested interests, there have been repeated calls to abolish them.

I believe these criticisms are misplaced. They focus on the method of electing functional constituencies, not functional constituencies themselves as an institutional arrangement for aggregating political preferences.

Democracies [tend to] overemphasise social concerns at the expense of economic ones

If candidates from functional constituencies faced popular election at the ballot box, there would be no compelling reason to abolish them in favour of more geographical constituencies.

For geographical constituencies are problematic, too. They emerged in pre-industrial society when people lived in self-sufficient agricultural communities, and are not necessarily the most suitable arrangement for a market-oriented, industrial society.

One of the by-products of geographical constituencies has been the tendency of democracies to overemphasise social concerns at the expense of economic ones. Another has been government inadequacy in addressing larger concerns that affect the population as a whole, in the face of local political resistance in geographical constituencies.

We have seen examples of this in Hong Kong with the siting of waste management facilities, schools for the mentally handicapped, halfway houses for convicts and other facilities unpopular with local neighbourhoods.

Political representatives returned through geographical constituencies are far more inclined to concentrate on life- related issues rather than work-related ones. If elections were based solely on geographic constituencies, local politics would work against the city's international business aspirations.

Some form of countervailing political force is needed to keep inward-looking forces in check for the larger interest.

This is why Hong Kong is fortunate to have functional constituencies, which can address a wide range of economic and social concerns not adequately represented through geographical constituencies. Reforming them to meet the public's aspirations for greater democracy would, I believe, be much easier than reforming geographical constituencies, where gerrymandering is a common problem.

Functional constituencies do need to be reformed. They now serve the interests of the service providers and not the customers, and they are structured to defend existing interests rather than promote openness and competition.

Any change in their elections would have to strike a balance between competing interests, but I propose a way that provides a role for the consumers and for the producers: let producers assume responsibility for nominating candidates in their functional constituency, and let these candidates stand before an electorate that includes all voters, representing the consumers.

Functional constituencies would thus become a voice for both producers and consumers.

In practice, this would mean allowing voters to cast two votes: one life-oriented vote in the geographical constituency where they reside, and the other work-oriented vote in any functional constituency of their choice.

The functional constituency vote would be a city-wide one, and the voter would not have to belong to the functional constituency in which he or she voted.

This would be a dynamic system that could respond to evolving voter interests and preferences, because voters could easily enter and exit a constituency. Such flexibility is not possible with geographical constituencies, because residents do not move frequently, and cumbersome negotiations are required to redraw district boundaries.

Building more flexibility into the political-representation process is particularly important for Hong Kong, as an open city whose prosperity depends on being well integrated with the world and the mainland.

Reformed functional constituencies could help to achieve this goal, while geographical constituencies could continue to represent local and life-related interests. Hong Kong has the opportunity now to enact this change and develop a more effective system of democratic government.

Richard Wong Yue-chim is the Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong