Abolish corporate voting to make Hong Kong elections fairer

Carine Lai says rooting out the unfair and distorting practice of corporate voting could help the government win backing for its electoral reforms

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 November, 2014, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2014, 5:22am

Hong Kong may be the only jurisdiction on earth which allows non-human corporate entities to vote, and their existence is one of the murkiest aspects of Hong Kong's political system. As corporate entities were wholly or partly responsible for electing 570 out of the Election Committee's 1,200 seats in 2011, and 20 out of 35 Legislative Council functional constituency seats in 2012, their influence rivals that of human voters.

Sectors that are dominated by corporate voters typically serve a small number of constituents. In 2012, the smallest traditional functional constituency, finance, had just 128 registered corporate voters. The largest (excluding the five new super seats), education, had 92,957 voters, all of them human. The size of the electorate has no link with a sector's contribution to the economy, its number of firms or employees, or any other kind of economic statistic.

Precisely which corporations may vote is arbitrary. For example, despite the existence of 65,248 wholesale and retail establishments in 2012, there were only 7,242 registered voters in that functional constituency. Why? Voting is restricted to members of designated umbrella organisations, which are themselves chosen by government discretion. For no discernible reason, four functional constituencies - commercial (first), commercial (second), industrial (first) and industrial (second) - are each devoted exclusively to one umbrella organisation: the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, and the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong, respectively. Yet the wholesale and retail functional constituency has 87 recognised umbrella organisations. Because such organisations determine their own members, voter eligibility screening has basically been outsourced to the private sector.

This lack of transparency enables overt and covert manipulation. Large conglomerates can cast multiple votes through subsidiaries - Hutchison Whampoa is said to control 36 votes. There is also little to prevent the deliberate creation of shell companies to stack the vote as the only rule is that companies have to have been in operation for 12 months.

While individuals cannot vote if they are serving prison time, among other restrictions, no such restrictions apply to corporations. A company whose entire management has been imprisoned for bribery can vote as long as its authorised representative, the one casting the ballot, has a clean record.

All this produces limited competition. Corporate electorates are often so insular that elections are unnecessary. In 2011, 11 out of the Election Committee's 38 subsectors, collectively representing 278 seats, were returned unopposed. Likewise, in the 2012 Legco election, 12 corporate functional constituencies, plus the Heung Yee Kuk, went uncontested.

If the government wishes to secure the support of some pan-democratic legislators for its constitutional reform package, it should abolish corporate voting completely. The democrats and the protesters on the street, for their part, should take such a proposal seriously. While it falls short of what they want, it would go a long way towards making Hong Kong's elections more open and competitive.

Carine Lai is project manager at Civic Exchange