Legco election 2016: How a handful of voters elect 30 Hong Kong lawmakers

In the second of a four-part series on prospects for reform in the 2016 Legco election, we look at who elects functional constituency lawmakers

Tanna Chong

Are Hong Kong's functional constituency lawmakers vital ballast against populism and a mark of the importance of business in upholding the city's stability, or an anachronism that stands in the way of true democracy?

The future of the 30 Legislative Council seats that are elected not by the public at large but by 28 constituencies made up of professionals, businesspeople and, most controversially of all, corporations, is at the heart of the debate over arrangements for the 2016 legislative election.

The composition of Legco is being discussed as the city moves towards universal suffrage, in 2017 for the chief executive election and 2020 for the legislature.

Professor Wang Zhenmin, dean of law at Tsinghua University and a former member of Beijing's Basic Law Committee, said last month that the city had to uphold the interests of businessmen to protect capitalism and meritocracy as it moves towards universal suffrage.

But University of Science and Technology political scientist Dr Sing Ming says the functional constituencies, with an electorate of less than 240,000 individuals, businesses and corporate bodies, need an overhaul.

"The 35 geographical seats and five district council functional constituency seats [so-called "super seats", chosen by city-wide ballot] are elected by a total of 3.47 million voters. That means one functional vote carries the same weight as 12.5 geographical votes," said Sing. "It goes against political fairness."

A useful place to start in picking apart the debate would be to look at exactly how the 240,000-strong voter base is made up: closer scrutiny shows that the seats are in the hands of an even smaller group of people.

In some cases, voters have a say in more than one constituency; in other seats, one corporation can effectively control several votes.

Take the import and export sector as an example. Five of the 17 trade bodies whose members are eligible to register as voters are also part of the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, members of which elect the lawmaker for the commercial (second) seat.

In the insurance sector, the 130 voters - the second smallest electorate of any constituency - include eight subsidiaries of Paris-based AXA and four entities controlled by London-based Prudential. At least four banks, including HSBC and its subsidiary Hang Seng, hold votes in the insurance sector and the finance seat - the smallest constituency, with just 125 votes.

With 7,673 voters, the catering constituency appears more broadly representative - anyone licensed to run a food business is eligible to vote. But some restaurant chains have registered each of their outlets as voters: the Crystal Jade group has nine votes, while its fellow Shanghainese chain Wang Jia Sha has six. The picture is similar in the sports, performing arts and culture seat, where the Broadway Cinema chain has six votes and the BMA Investment Group has five.

Liberal Tommy Cheung Yu-yan has held the catering seat since it was created in 2000. He has not had an opponent since 2004. The insurance, financial and commercial (second) seats all went uncontested in 2012.

Quasi-governmental statutory bodies also have a say in determining who sits in the legislature. The Airport Authority has a vote in the transport sector, while the Urban Renewal Authority and Tourism Board can cast ballots in the commercial (first) seat as members of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

Sing, the political scientist said: "These strong and concentrated stakes are in the hands of the business elite, who would seek to protect vested interests at the expense of the city's long-term development, such as the maintenance of a competitive business environment."

The 2016 Legislative Council poll, along with the 2017 election for chief executive, is the subject of a five-month government consultation launched in December.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How a handful of voters elect 30 lawmakers