Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Brief Comments on the Third-Term Election of District Councils of Hong Kong

Establishment of the District Councils of Hong Kong

The District Councils, known as District Boards before 1999, were the local consultative bodies serving the “administrative absorption of politics” goal for the British colonial government of Hong Kong. They were established accompanied with the Sino-British negotiation over Hong Kong issue in 1982. The official functions of the 18 District Boards of Hong Kong include 1) serving as a channel for Hong Kong people to have their say on local matters to the government; 2) improving bureaucratic efficiency through administrative coordination; 3) using the public funds allocated to the District for environmental improvements and the promotion of recreational and cultural activities. As a matter of fact, the establishment of District Boards, in addition to the Executive Council (ExCo) and the Legislation Council (LegCo), implies the “against China with democracy” attempt of the British colonial government.

Changes of District Council elections after 1997

In 1996, China set up the provisional LegCo and provisional District Boards after the proposal package of changes for the 1995 LegCo elections being deemed unconstitutional by Beijing. All members of District Boards remained seats, while the Chief Executive was given the power of appointing a fifth more new members to each District. In November 1999 the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) had the first District Boards election. There were a total of 519 District Boards members, of which 27 were ex officio members (Rural Committee Chairpersons in the New Terrotories); 102 were appointed members, and 390 returned by direct elections in the 18 Districts. Most of the appointed members were pro-China. On 2nd December 1999, under the then-Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's plan to streamline and centralize municipal services as part of his government's policy reforms, the HKSAR government decided to dissolve the Urban Council and the Regional Council. Since then, the name of District Boards were changed to District Councils, implies the administrative upgrade of the bodies.

In June 2006, in order to strengthen the local administration, the new Chief Executive Donald Tzang proposed to enlarge the power of District Boards of superintending local facilities, including libraries, community halls, recreational sites, gyms, swimming pools and minor construction funds. In addition, he set up the annual administrative meeting (chaired by himself) to enhance communication. Four Districts, including Wan Chai, Wong Tai Sin, Sai Kung and Tuen Mun, were selected for experiment of this proposal. The proposal is scheduled to take force in all 18 Districts in 2008.

The 2007 District Council elections result

The election result of District Councils was released on 18th November 2007. The pro-government Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) won a quarter (115) of seats out of its 177 candidates. Comparing with the 30% success rate in 2003, the 65% rate this time implies the increasing support of the DAB.

To the contrary, the pro-democracy camp lost seats in general. The Democratic Party, the biggest winner in 2003, won 59 seats out of its 108 candidates and made Lee Wing-tat, its vice-chairman, to resign. The Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood (ADPL) lost eight seats this time, got 17 seats out of its 37 candidates, which made Fung Kin-kee, its chairman, to resign. The Civic Party won only eight seats out of its 42 candidates for its first time to join the District Councils election. The League of Social Democrates (LSD) won six seats, and the Liberal Party won 14 seats out of its 56 candidates. The Chairman Tien Pei-chun commented that the Liberal Party successfully remained its vantage.

Nevertheless, the election result is opposite to the expectation before the election. The reasons are as follows:

1. The July 1st effect has vanished after the recovery of Hong Kong stock market due to the political change agenda (proposed by Chief Exeutive Tzang), the CEPA and China’s allowing its tourists to visit Hong Kong;

2. The successful grassroot mobilization of the DAB since July 1st, which significantly increases the support for important DAB figures such as Ip Kwok-him (who supported Article 23 of Hong Kong Basic Law) and Choy So-yuk. However, the pro-democracy camp’s keeping putting an emphasis on political issues, such as June 4th and July 1st, and overly relying on political stars, leads to losing seats.

3. The different natures and levels of District Councils and LegCo—District Councils aim at providing immediate services for local communities; it has become DAB’s niche with financial support from Beijing.

4. The worsen income disparity—the Gini index is approximate 0.5—has reinforced reason 3.

5. The difficulty in negotiation within the pro-democracy camp—although Parties established the “Alliance of pro-democracy District Council Elections,” they competed against each other in seven Districts. The thorny part is too many young candidates competitng for too few seats.

6. The low turnout rate (38.83%, relative to 44.4% in 2003) is unfavourable to the pro-democracy camp. In addition, on the eve of District Council elections, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao announced the brake of stock policy and led to the slump of Heng Shen index; which significantly affected people’s interests in vote.

Haste brings no success in Hong Kong's democracy?

Since the interpretation of the dual general election by National People’s Congress (NPC), Hong Kong people have realized that democarcy requires proper sequence and have become more pragmatic. The triumph of DAB in 2007 might relieve Beijing’s misgivings about local democracy and allow HKSAR governments more room to promote democracy. And the failure of pro-democracy camp does not mean it has been repelled by the people; it means that the camp should revise its tactics in the two following aspects:

1. Democracy does not necessary guarantee votes; rather, to enhance the grassroot mobilization is more important;
2. Shifting focus to concrete structural issues.

On 2nd December it would have Hong Kong Island Legco by-election. The two front-runners are Anson Chan, the so-called “the conscience of Hong Kong” and Regina Ip, the former security minister who pushed the Article 23 of Hong Kong Basic Law. It is believed that the result of this by-election is an important symbolic index of democracy development of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s “democracy in the cage” cannot be put on a par with Taiwan’s democracy. To develop democracy with Beijing’s doctrine of “across the river by groping the stones” implies dangers. As the Chief Executive Tzang said, Hong Kong’s democracy is at the crossroad and needs to develop at proper pace; otherwise, it would arouse social discontent. This implies huge potentiality for pro-democracy camp.

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