Hong Kong's political parties need fuller disclosure of their funding
Political parties in Hong Kong are odd entities. Increasingly, they play an active role in governance, taking seats in the district councils, legislature, government advisory panels, the chief executive's cabinet and ruling team. Given their strong influence on policies and public affairs, they are expected to adhere to the highest standard of transparency and accountability for their operations. But, oddly enough, most parties are only registered under the Companies Ordinance, which means their disclosure responsibilities are no more than for a private company. They are still, regrettably, reluctant to disclose sensitive information such as how they are financed. Public scrutiny is woefully limited.
Some light was shed in late 2011 when a leaked document suggested pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai Chee-ying had donated about HK$28 million to the Democratic Party and the Civic Party over the previous few years. Interestingly, a court case involving the control of Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum's Chinachem Charitable Foundation also revealed that the Democrats had received donations from her. The court heard that the charity had given the party HK$4.2 million between 1997 and 1999. The revelation dispelled the belief that tycoons shun pro-democracy parties for fear of upsetting Beijing. Alas, the details only came to light in a lawsuit after 15 years.
It is speculation whether the late tycoon would have donated to the Democrats had she known that it would be disclosed. But understandably, prominent figures may not want to be seen as openly backing groups opposed by Beijing. The concern of pan-democrats that compulsory declaration of funding sources may deter donations appears to be valid.
But non-disclosure undermines public monitoring of elections. Although candidates have to cap their spending and list their donations, records show many just declare having received a lump sum from their party. Since sponsors can get around the rules via a party donation, the public is unable to tell who is truly bankrolling a candidate.
When political parties mushroomed in the '90s, it was argued that too much regulation might restrict development. However, party politics has since come a long way. As universal suffrage draws nearer, parties are expected to play a more important role in governance. It makes sense to give them clear recognition. A party law can enhance transparency, accountability and credibility, allowing for better development.