2023 年 5 月 17 日
Revamped district councils will get back on tracks (Authored by Regina Ip, posted on China Daily hk)
On May 2, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu unveiled long-awaited plans for reforming the district councils.
The revamped district councils are to be restructured to have a tripartite membership, similar to the Legislative Council, comprising appointed members, members elected by members of Area Committees, the Fight Crime Committee and the Fire Prevention Committee in each district, and about 20 percent directly elected in substantially enlarged geographical constituencies. The numbers of district councilors will be slightly reduced from 479 to 470. The new-style district councilors are expected to play a bigger role in district consultation and improving governance at district level.
In announcing the “major surgery”, the chief executive stressed that the reformed district councils must comply with the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong”, must safeguard national security and must support “executive-led governance”. These principles cannot be overemphasized.
When appointed members were replaced entirely by directly elected members in 2015, many district councils fell into the hands of rabble-rousers who got elected through fanning anti-government sentiments. They grabbed media attention through indulging in eye-catching antics at council meetings, but did little solid work of value to local residents.
Things went from bad to worse in 2019 when months of rioting stoked dissatisfaction with the government. Many anti-government candidates seized the opportunity to win seats through exploiting the politics of hate and fear. Riding on their anti-government platforms, some elected members openly adopted anti-China positions, fueling separatist sentiments especially among young people.
After the National Security Law for Hong Kong was enacted by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in June 2020, over 300 district councilors resigned, causing the work of a number of district councils to grind to a halt. Their exodus from the district councils speaks volumes about their inability to comply with the fundamental requirements of loyalty to the country and commitment to “one country, two systems”.
Looking back on the history of the district councils since the 1980s, expansion of the electoral element led elected members in the opposition camp to harbor ambitions to turn district councils into organs of power. Such a development clearly went against the provision of Article 97 of the Basic Law, which clearly states that “District organizations which are not organs of power may be established in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, to be consulted by the government of the Region, on district administration and other affairs, or to be responsible for providing services in such fields as culture, recreation and environmental sanitation”.
The dysfunction and disorder which plagued the district councils made it imperative for the chief executive to reshape the district councils in accordance with the original intent of Article 97 of the Basic Law.
District councils were actually preceded by “district advisory boards” established in the early 1980s, designed to serve as platforms for consultation and collation of public opinions at district level. They were given some responsibilities for providing cultural, sport and recreational activities. Their knowledge of local conditions enabled them to give sound advice to the government on the improvements necessary to ameliorate the local environment and sanitary conditions.
This format worked well. But twisted ideas of power emanating from delusions about their “direct popular mandate” perverted the functions of subsequently elected district councils. Many veered from serving the people to jockeying for power. Reform is necessary to return district councils to the right path, as intended in the Basic Law.
The tripartite composition will enable the government to enlarge the talent pool for district councils. The different routes to membership will enable suitable candidates of diverse skills and backgrounds to have an opportunity to serve in the district with which they have the greatest affinity and connection.
There is no reason to worry that appointed members would be less hardworking or responsive than elected members who are more directly accountable to their electors. All are expected to establish a close connection with the people, so that they can keep close tabs on the pulse of the community. Moreover, the government has made it clear that there will be a mechanism to assess their performance, presumably not just on the basis of quantitative yardsticks such as attendance records, but the value of their contributions in terms of constructive ideas for improving the local environment and the livelihoods of the people.
It follows from the return to the original intent of the Basic Law that district councils would more appropriately be chaired by district officers. Before the British tried to give elected district councils more power as a check on government (which degenerated into excessive politicization and malfunction), district advisory bodies were chaired by district officers charged with the responsibility of overseeing and coordinating the work of government departments which most directly impact local residents.
It is pleasing that while the government will raise the bar in evaluating the performance of new-style district councilors, the government will also require government departments to do their part in improving district administration. The chief secretary for administration will chair a high-level steering committee on district governance, while the deputy chief secretary for administration will lead a task force to ensure effective coordination.
The revamped system is open to participation by all willing to uphold the key principles of safeguarding national security and supporting executive-led governance, the cornerstones of “one country, two systems”. Hand-wringing on the reduction of the electoral element is unnecessary, as incumbents should not be assessed purely on the procedure by which they were selected, but by the quality of their performance. Assuming that the necessary amendment legislation will be enacted in time for appointments and elections to be completed before the end of the year, we can look forward to revitalized district councils filled with able and committed people with Hong Kong’s best interests at heart, ready to open a new chapter of service for the people.