Goodbye district councils? Hong Kong’s area committees set to replace local bodies reeling from wave of resignations

·10-min read

Twenty months after losing the district council seat he held for eight years, Hong Kong pro-establishment politician Lau Chee-sing is back, and riding high.

Not only has he been made chairman of the new Area Committee in Tai Po North, but the appointment also makes him eligible to be part of the powerful Election Committee that will pick Hong Kong’s leader next year.

In April, the Home Affairs Bureau created two new area committees in Tai Po, appointing Lau, 63, an engineer and veteran of the pro-Beijing New Territories Association of Societies, and 36 others to form the new local groups.

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The government’s preference for his group, compared with the elected – and opposition-controlled — district council, was evident when his committee visited Lung Mei Beach, a 200-metre stretch of artificial beach, before it opened last month.

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Lau and his team were accompanied by officials from three government departments. To ease traffic congestion, he got together with representatives of six rural villages to suggest new ferry routes to the beach.

“I don’t see the need to make suggestions via the district council,” he said. “I have the engineering expertise and all the connections with officials needed to get the job done.”

Clearly, fortunes have changed in the arena of local Hong Kong politics since November 2019, when opposition candidates swept to power in district council elections, taking charge of 17 of the city’s 18 councils.

The arrival of the national security law last year, the arrest of dozens of activists and opposition figures, and Beijing’s sweeping overhaul of the electoral system – to ensure only “patriots” can contest elections and run Hong Kong – is slowly but surely paralysing the opposition ranks.

Lau Chee-sing’s fortunes have seen a dramatic reversal since losing his district council seat in 2019. Photo Xiaomei Chen
Lau Chee-sing’s fortunes have seen a dramatic reversal since losing his district council seat in 2019. Photo Xiaomei Chen

Over the past two weeks, 207 of the 452 elected councillors resigned over a new oath-taking requirement under the security law, following media reports suggesting they might have to repay all accrued wages and subsidies if they were disqualified from office. Many did so to avoid bankruptcy.

But their moves have hollowed out district councils, leaving many without chairmen, or with too few members to continue running effectively.

Stepping in to fill the void are three relatively low-profile committees made up mainly of community leaders appointed by the government – the area committees as well as the district crime-fighting and district fire safety committees.

These groups are now seeking the power and funding to shadow or replace the depleted district councils. Unlike district councillors, who are elected and receive monthly wages of HK$32,150 (US$4,100), the committee members are volunteers.

Area committees were formed in 16 districts in 1972 primarily to promote public participation in the Keep Hong Kong Clean and Fight Violent Crime campaigns. There are now 71 committees in the 18 districts, tasked with encouraging public participation in district affairs and helping to organise community activities and government campaigns.

Despite his defeat in the 2019 polls, Lau kept his office, using his own money and donations from residents to continue serving the neighbourhood.

The resignation of eight pro-democracy councillors from the 21-member Tai Po District Council has given him the opportunity to step up again through the area committee.

“We can do much more to serve residents at this critical time,” he said, calling for the committee to be given powers to allocate government funds and access policy papers.

‘Committees need more funds to do more’

In the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, all 117 seats for district councillors on the expanded 1,500-member Election Committee have been scrapped, leaving them with zero influence on all future polls.

Instead, 156 seats have been set aside for members of the area, crime-fighting and fire safety committees.

According to a count by the Post, the three committees have more than 2,500 members and about 200 of them are candidates who lost in the 2019 district polls.

Kwun Tong district councillor Frankie Ngan Man-yu, 34, of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), sits on the District Fight Crime Committee there.

It is allocated tens of thousands of dollars a year for community projects, but he said it had insufficient resources to do more.

“The annual funds are only enough for us to organise anti-crime events targeting one specific group each year,” he said. “With more resources, we can commission in-depth studies and hold events to benefit more residents.”

A major function of district councils is to scrutinise funding for minor works and community activities, but they also have budgets for various activities.

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For the 2020-21 financial year, HK$461.6 million has been provided for district councils to carry out community involvement projects and activities.

Since last year, the government also earmarked HK$80 million as annual recurrent expenditure for a “District-led Action Scheme” to tackle long-standing local issues.

The government-appointed committees now want more funds and power, along with their rising fortunes.

But Sam Yip Kam-lung, 33, who resigned earlier this month as an opposition member of Central and Western District Council, questioned if taxpayer money would be spent properly by appointed, pro-government committees.

Kwai Tsing District Council and others across the city are struggling to function as they did previously. Photo: Edmond So
Kwai Tsing District Council and others across the city are struggling to function as they did previously. Photo: Edmond So

He said that at a council meeting last month, members of the area committee wanted HK$100,000 to organise a photography competition, budgeting HK$5,000 merely to launch Facebook and Instagram pages, the same amount to run a Google form, and HK$3,000 to operate an email account.

“They explained those were rough estimates, but our jaws dropped when we read the documents,” he said. The opposition-controlled council rejected a large part of the committee’s proposed budget.

He said there were documents which also showed the same committee sought HK$100,000 to host a night show to celebrate National Day in 2019, and HK$120,000 to organise guided tours and produce leaflets about the history of the district.

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“If these people are empowered to allocate funds, public money might just go into the pockets of companies affiliated to them. It’s hard to guarantee that public money will be well spent.”

Hard to reach committee members

Beijing and city officials have not indicated clearly what lies ahead for district administration.

The government has left the district councils to deal with the situation of councillors resigning in quick succession, making clear there will be no by-elections to fill vacant seats before the next polls, due in 2023.

When asked in a media interview earlier this month how residents should raise their grievances with so many councillors gone, Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu replied that they could turn to their local area, crime-fighting and fire committees.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Photo: Sam Tsang
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Photo: Sam Tsang

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had earlier said the three committees were representative, and pointed out that two had been around longer than district councils.

But access to most members of these committees remains difficult.

While district councillors have their office address and contact details listed online, only the membership list for the area committees is available on the Home Affairs Department website.

Residents can hardly tell who to contact, much less how or where to reach them. The agenda and minutes of the committees’ quarterly meetings are also not available to the public, unlike those of district councils.

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Leticia Wong Man-huen, a former member of the opposition Civic Party and a Sha Tin district councillor who resigned, said that right until the end, she and others who quit were helping residents register for the government’s HK$5,000 e-vouchers to encourage spending.

“I’ve never heard of any of the Area Committee members doing that,” she said.

Half the members of the 42-member council have resigned. With 600,000 residents in the district, Wong said it would be impossible for the remaining councillors to shoulder all the work.

She called for greater clarity from the government on what lay ahead and the changes afoot, saying the disarray was jeopardising residents’ interests.

Leticia Wong is a former member of the opposition Civic Party who resigned from the district council in Sha Tin. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Leticia Wong is a former member of the opposition Civic Party who resigned from the district council in Sha Tin. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

“It’s understandable that the unpaid district representatives refuse to share their contact information with the public,” she said. “[But] if there is no reform, it is the residents who will suffer.”

The Central and Western District Council has been hardest hit by resignations, with just three of its 15 members still in office.

Liberal Party member Jeremy Young Chit-on, the only one remaining from the pro-establishment bloc, is worried the council had been crippled, and said some meetings had already been cancelled, as the acting chairman found the situation “chaotic”.

“I don‘t even know how we can raise motions and vote on them with only three people left,” he said. “It would be better if the government can explain the future of district councils.”

The government’s reticence on the fate of district councils has been conspicuous.

On Tuesday, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her government, whose term ends in July next year, simply did not have the time or capacity to hold by-elections in the remainder of her tenure as it was already dealing with three other major polls – for the Election Committee, Legislative Council and the chief executive post – in the coming months.

She said it would be up to the next chief executive to decide if he or she wanted to hold by-elections in the remaining 18 months before the 2023 polls.

The DAB’s Frankie Ngan also wants to know if the roles of the government-appointed committees, as well as the mutual aid and owners’ committees, will be reformed to fill the vacuum in the meantime.

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Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung, from Chinese University, cautioned against empowering government-appointed district representatives and asking them to replace district councillors.

“It’s hardly convincing to let a group of election losers ‘reflect’ citizens’ views, after publicly elected councillors were forced out,” he said, urging the authorities to reflect on the true meaning of “district administration”.

The Home Affairs Department did not respond when asked if the government intended to hand more power to the local committees. A spokeswoman highlighted the present functions of the area committees.

She also refused to reveal the contacts or background information of area committee members across Hong Kong.

Asked if there were plans to reform the councils, she said: “Relevant district councils will continue to handle district affairs as usual, and citizens can contact relevant government departments for district affairs if necessary.”

For now, the fate of the district councils remains uncertain, even over whether they would continue to be part of the political landscape after 2023 when their current term runs out.

Song Sio-chong, a professor at Shenzhen University’s Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau, was not too worried. He said he believed that area committees would only shadow the hollowed-out district councils until the 2023 polls.

Beijing still had “plenty of time” in the next two years, he said, to observe the potential impact on district affairs before making a decision.

He added: “As long as problematic councillors are weeded out, and Beijing draws a line on what acts are not allowed, I don’t see why the next district polls can’t proceed,”

Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng

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