Published: 01:18, May 24, 2023 | Updated: 10:46, May 24, 2023
Critics must face facts: Proposed DC reforms are essential
By Pearl Tsang and Kacee Ting Wong

It comes as no surprise to us that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s plans to depoliticize the district councils (DCs) and redirect their focus to community-level livelihood issues have not been well-received by critics. 

Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party, said the reduction of directly elected council seats was a pity. Paul Zimmerman, vice-chairman of the Southern District Council, said the proposed reforms would make it more difficult for authorities to accurately understand public opinion. Former councilor Yip Kam-lung called these reforms “regressive actions”. They should face up to our response.

First, DCs must be depoliticized because of the new circumstances. It’s a matter of grave concern that DCs had been politicized and deviated from their original roles and functions. Following the 2019 district council elections, most of the DCs became confrontational. Some district councilors even supported the advocacy of “Hong Kong independence”. What is at stake is not only the security of the city but that of the whole nation. Equally of concern is that some councilors were incompetent and failed to perform their duties.

We should dispel the myth that the proposed DC reform has a political agenda. The HKSAR government merely intends to restore DCs’ original consultative role, as stipulated in Article 97 of the Basic Law. As many people prefer simple untruths to complicated truths, the government should launch a publicity campaign to bring these constitutional constraints on politicization to the forefront of the residents. Indicative of the government’s intention to depoliticize DCs, the earlier decision to strip DCs of their membership on the Election Committee and of their influence in the Legislative Council has not escaped our attention.

Benjamin van Rooij and Adam Fine remind us that knowledge of the law has become a function of attitudes. They say that when we are not directly taught about what is in the law, the law becomes what we imagine it to be (The Behavioral Code: The Hidden Ways the Law Makes us Better or Worse). Obviously, the drafters of the Basic Law did not want DCs to be political organs. We should get this message understood as accurately as possible in the city.

Second, the reforms are in line with the principle of “executive-led government”, as prescribed in the specific provisions of the Basic Law. According to Maria Tam Wai-chu, one of the examples is the “Chief Executive Accountability System”, stipulated by Article 43 of the Basic Law (Department of Justice, Back to Basics (HK: DOJ, 2020)). District councilors will no longer elect their chairs. Instead, district officers (DOs) — government officials in charge of municipal-level administration — will preside over DCs, reverting to a practice last seen in the 1980s. One of the main duties of DOs is to help DCs convey residents’ views to the government. It hardly needs emphasizing these public servants are responsible to the government (Article 99 of the Basic Law).

Third, the appointment system has also attracted criticism. Under the reform plan, the government will choose 179 district councilors. To be fair, competitive elections do not often function in the idealistic way their advocates paint them. Obsessed with Western democratic dogmas, critics cannot accept that there are other alternative routes to legitimacy and good governance. If the last district council elections are any reference, we are sure that competitive elections do not ensure meritocracy. The theory of “output legitimacy” helps us to view legitimacy through a broader and more-balanced perspective.

As Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has correctly pointed out, DCs’ legitimacy is derived from what they achieve for the benefit of society. The secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, has noted that the popular-vote system overlooked professionals and patriotic candidates who were reluctant to run in elections. These people have the potential to be very helpful to the community.

We also see a strong case for introducing the appointment system in district administration. Some professionals, who are active community officers, have been serving their designated districts for many years. Equipped with professional knowledge and community-level working experience, these community officers can help deliver good governance to their respective districts. In addition to taking good care of the residents in the designated districts, a few devoted community offices have wholeheartedly exposed themselves to a great variety of community work.

Fourth, the indirect election system has prompted a flood of complaints from the critics. According to the reform plan, 176 seats will be picked by government-appointed members of three existing neighborhood committees in the districts: the District Fire Safety Committee, the District Fight Crime Committee, and the Area Committee. It’s likely that most of the active community officers will participate in the forthcoming indirect election. Along with having more knowledge of the backgrounds of these council hopefuls, the members of the three committees are also familiar with their contributions to district work. As a result of the screening mechanism, members of the three committees could recruit the best and avoid the worst.

Fifth, the new accountability system can enhance the credibility of the proposed reforms. Under the reform plan, the government will introduce an accountability system to monitor the performance of councilors. Those who fail to promote the policies as assigned by the DOs could face disciplinary probes if no reasonable excuse can be given. It’s an underappreciated risk that a popular-and-competitive vote system often lacks a formal and effective post-election accountability mechanism. The shake-up will fill in these accountability gaps.

Finally, the nomination system will ensure only patriots run Hong Kong. Those seeking indirect or direct election must secure at least three nominations from each of the three committees and pass a national security vetting process. The nomination system brings the overhaul into complete harmony with the need to safeguard national security.


Pearl Tsang is chairwoman of Hong Kong Ample Love Society and co-director of district administration of the Chinese Dream Think Tank. 

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and Macao Basic Law Research Center, and chairman of the Chinese Dream Think Tank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.