Published: 23:38, February 17, 2023 | Updated: 23:53, February 17, 2023
Get district councils back on track by introducing needed reforms
By Lee Chiu-yu

With the promulgation of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the implementation of an improved electoral system, the special administrative region government now governs the region in a much better political environment and has more leeway to introduce reforms in various areas, including the district council system, the reform of which is arguably one of the most pressing issues for the government to address without further ado.

According to Article 97 of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, district organizations which are not organs of political power may be established in the HKSAR. Unlike the Legislative Council, district councils have no constitutional role. They mainly function as intermediaries between the government and local residents on matters involving individual districts. However, since the 2019 district council election, many district councils have clearly strayed away from their original roles and become hotspots of political wrangling. Since the implementation of the NSL, a significant number of district councilors have resigned from their posts. Clearly the current district council system is in the verge of collapse. 

Overpoliticization is the reason behind many district councils’ deviation from their intended roles as the government’s consultants on local affairs. To deal with this problem, the government should initiate reforms to get district councils back on track. Under the existing electoral system, even candidates without any knowledge of community affairs can run for a district council seat as long as they can come up with some political goals or slogans. This phenomenon was particularly evident in the district council elections held in November 2019 after the anti-extradition campaign that erupted a few months earlier. At that time, many candidates merely peddled political slogans in their election campaign without paying much attention to district affairs. Furthermore, in 2020 the Central and Western District Council (C&W DC) under the control of  “pan-democrat” councilors passed several politically-motivated motions that maliciously targeted some government departments, including the Code on Police’s access to C&W DC Conference Room. To prevent similar situations from occurring again, the threshold for running in the district council election should be raised. All candidates should be nominated by members of the Election Committee on top of nomination by residents. This would prevent district councils from being distracted from their designated duties/functions, and ensure that they remain focused on attending to community affairs.

At the same time, the government should also introduce measures to enhance the quality and efficiency of district council meetings. Reintroducing the appointments system could be one viable option. District council members from geographical constituencies have a better understanding on local public sentiment. However, the nature of geographical constituencies could lead councilors to prioritize local interests, creating a not-in-my-backyard phenomenon in councils. Taking land reclamation as an example, when the government proposed the Ma Liu Shui reclamation project, the plan faced unanimous opposition from the Sha Tin district council in 2018. This is the unavoidable contradiction district council members from geographical constituency must face. The introduction of a district council appointments system would help mitigate the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon in district councils. Meanwhile, the government could also consider appointing professionals to district councils. Livelihood issues can be as small as building a lift for a footbridge or as big and important as a land use plan. All these issues require professional knowledge to handle them properly. With the introduction of professionals to district councils, the quality of community work would be improved. 

The term of office for the current district councils will end on Jan 1 next year and the next district council election will be held at the end of 2023. The government should reform the district council system as soon as possible so that it can get the next-term district councils back on track to focus on working for their constituents’ well-being as well as managing community affairs. And more importantly, the proposed reform should be online with the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong”.

The author is a member of China Retold and Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.