Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

Unelected district councillors defend record

The jury's out on appointed district councillors as they prepare for loss of their seats in 2016, but some are ready to put their popularity to the test

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 4:19am

Hong Kong's path to democracy remains clouded with uncertainty - but the date has been set for one clear step towards universal suffrage.

The abolition of appointed positions on the city's 18 district councils may not have the drama associated with the debate over universal suffrage for the Legislative Council, or over direct election of the chief executive. But it has long been a demand of the pan-democrats, and the government announced last year that the posts would go in 2016.

But those who serve as unelected councillors are left with a dilemma. Do they quietly withdraw from local politics, in the knowledge that they will be accused of lacking public support? Or do they face the electors, who may very well ask why they are seeking the voters' mandate only after their government sinecures have been withdrawn?

Some argue that appointed members represent the business and professional perspectives, which could otherwise be absent from the district bodies. And they warn that elected members must show the ability to take these viewpoints into consideration in the future, or risk the councils becoming populist or biased towards the grass roots.

The appointed seats were created in 1982, when the district boards were established by the colonial government. Although they were scrapped by the last British governor - Chris Patten - in 1994, the unelected seats returned after the handover with the establishment of the provisional district boards.

From 1999, there were 102 appointees to the councils citywide. But in response to critics who denounced them as "undemocratic", the government scrapped a third of the seats and only appointed 68 district councillors at election time in 2011.

There are now 412 elected councillors. But the cut in the number of appointed councillors failed to end the debate, because almost all were from the Beijing-loyalist camp, and at least three had previously been rejected by voters.

A month before the appointments, five of the original 102 appointees opted to face the electorate, of whom four won the right to carry on as elected district councillors.

They include Sai Kung district councillor and engineer Christine Fong Kwok-shan, who was elected in the Wan Po constituency, Tseung Kwan O, after serving for four years as an appointee.

Fong says she believes that professionals like her should face the voters if they are to serve their communities, but she also says that the contributions of unelected councillors must not be overlooked.

"How much they contributed depended on the personal qualities of the councillors and their level of commitment, but I won't say they are no good at all," Fong said.

According to the district councils' websites, about half of the appointees are either businessmen, company directors or managing directors. A further 12 are professionals - such as lawyers or engineers - while eight of the others work in the education sector.

Although the next election is almost three years away, at least 10 of the appointees have indicated an interest in running for direct election. They include Jeffrey Pong Chiu-fai (Wan Chai) and Holden Chow Ho-ding (Islands).

Pong, an eye specialist by trade, believes that the appointees help their elected colleagues make their neighbourhoods a better place.

"For example, even the business sector [councillors] contributed by working with local charities, or seeking donations and other support," Pong said. "Appointed councillors also tend to look at the whole district, while the directly elected councillors usually pay more attention to their own constituencies."

Chow, a solicitor, also endorsed that view.

"I'm a bit worried that there will not be enough professional advice [in the district councils without the unelected members]. That is an uncertainty," Chow said.

Asked whether he was worried that the district councils would become populist, Chow replied: "Yes, I am."

However, Democratic Party veteran Wu Chi-wai, a directly elected councillor in Wong Tai Sin for 13 years, disagreed with this view.

"Even appointees could act in a populist manner," Wu said. "And professionals could contest a seat [under the present system] and many have won before. Two of our directly elected colleagues are lawyers, so I think the problem does not exist [even without appointees]."

Professionals and other community leaders could, he added, advise on local affairs as co-opted members of the district councils' committees.

Pan-democratic veteran Leung Yiu-chung, a district councillor since 1985, also dismissed worries that the district councils could be hamstrung without the appointees.

"I am a teacher and my colleagues are social workers, so you cannot assume that the popularly elected members don't have professional knowledge," Leung said. "So I believe that the roles of district councillors will remain the same, because frankly speaking, not much professional advice is needed at the district level."

In December, the democratic credentials of Hong Kong's district councils came under renewed scrutiny after it emerged that seven out of 68 appointed councillors had their offices outside the districts they represent, making it more difficult for members of the public to get in touch with them. They include Eastern district council's Michael Li Hon-shing and Baldwin Cheng Shing-fung, who rent offices in Tsim Sha Tsui and Happy Valley respectively. Kwai Tsing district council chairman Fong Ping's office is in Hung Hom.

In defence of his decision to rent an office in Tsim Sha Tsui, Li said an appointee's performance must not be judged solely by where his or her offices were.

"Our job as appointees is to work on the macro affairs of the district, and to work with our directly elected colleagues."

Li said he did not neglect his district, having organised its first food expo to boost its economy and tourism.

Some district councillors do not even have a district office. For example, Sha Tin district councillor Wong Kit-lin, principal of Baptist Lui Ming Choi Primary School, listed the school as her office address.

Besides submitting an amendment to Legco next Wednesday to abolish all appointed seats, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying also promised to examine ways to enhance the functions of the district councils and enable members to play a more active role in district affairs.

Plans include providing additional resources to the councils, and reserving a one-off grant of HK$100 million for each district this year to carry out signature projects in their current term of office. Allowance and expense reimbursement arrangements for district councillors will also be reviewed.

Wu and Leung Yiu-chung also urged the government to scrap the 27 seats in nine district councils in the New Territories that are occupied by virtue of their holders' other office. The seats are now held by the elected chairman of the rural committees of the Heung Yee Kuk. But it appears the government has no plans to do away with them.