Pro-democracy local councillors in Hong Kong have vowed to cut down on extravagant celebrations at National Day or the city’s handover, as it emerged that most districts had spent an average of HK$1 million a year on the patriotic shindigs since 2017.
The plan to significantly reduce the expenses on the banquets, day trips or performances comes after the pro-democracy bloc scored a landslide victory in November’s polls, bagging almost 90 per cent of seats and taking control of all but one council.
“I would not grant a single dime if it were up to me,” Democratic Party legislator and Central and Western district councillor Ted Hui Chi-fung said. “Politically, it’s also to let the regime know we are not in the mood for celebrations when Hong Kong is still struggling.”
From 2017 to 2019, 15 out of 18 districts each spent between HK$1 million (US$130,000) and HK$1.9 million per year on organising or sponsoring events celebrating National Day on October 1 or the handover anniversary on July 1, according to a Post analysis of council documents. The exceptions were Southern and Islands districts, which have notably small populations, and Tai Po.
Putting that money into community services for the poor is clearly better than popping champagne, which is not putting the money to good use
Gary Fan, NeoDemocrat councillor
Kowloon City and Sha Tin district councils spent the most, each parting with a total of HK$5.9 million over the past three years.
Almost all districts have funded funfairs or banquets as part of the celebrations. Kowloon City, for instance, used HK$430,000 last year to sponsor a dinner organised by a pro-Beijing business association to celebrate 70 years of communist rule in China. It also funded five lunches or afternoon teas last year related to one of the two celebrations, each costing HK$15,000.
The events were typically hosted by local community groups advised by pro-establishments district councillors.
Sham Shui Po Sports Association, founded by former Sham Shui Po District Council chairman Chan Tung, has dominated National Day celebrations locally for three years in a row. The group received a sponsorship of HK$258,000 annually from the council between 2017 and 2019.
Chan, who began his community work in the 1970s before becoming a councillor in the 1990s, defended the cash transfers, saying: “Each year we have to spend a million dollars out of our own pocket.”
“It’s not just for national celebrations,” he added. “We do all these basketball, football or all sort of ball game classes.”
Pro-democracy councillors have railed against the spending. In previous terms, Hui was almost the only councillor to filibuster at his district council to oppose similar funding proposals. In other districts, they were sometimes passed in minutes or even by circulation without a meeting being convened.
“The celebration events are basically just repetitive, hosting shows or dinners. How does that really help the community? The Home Affairs Bureau can host its own events with its own funding,” Hui said.
But since big wins in November’s local elections, the pro-democracy bloc is in what Hui called a “surreal” situation, dominating almost all districts, and therefore controlling budgets and vetting applications from community groups – traditionally the prerogative of Beijing loyalists.
As early as next month, councillors could start discussing the budget for the coming financial year, which starts in April.
“We will reduce the spending on celebrations by 80 per cent and only keep some for some plain and symbolic celebrations,” said Sai Kung councillor Gary Fan Kwok-wai, an ousted legislator of the NeoDemocrats.
“Putting that money into community services for the poor is clearly better than popping champagne, which is not putting the money to good use.”
Eastern District Council chairman Joseph Lai Chi-keong, a veteran local politician from the Civic Party, said the body would consider significantly reducing spending on celebrations and diverting the money to community services.
But both Lai and Fan said they would respect residents’ groups if they applied for funding through the usual procedures.
“These activities in past years were no more than just a ritual, but Hong Kong is part of China, so we could maintain some events,” said Lai, a councillor since 1988.
Aron Kwok Wai-keung, an Eastern district councillor from the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, complained that the pro-democracy camp was politicising the councils, but conceded he could do little, as one of only two pro-establishment members on the 34-member body.
“Hong Kong SAR anniversary and National Day celebrations must go on,” he said. “We hope the government can fund its own activity to make sure these events are not affected.”
Chan Tung, the former councillor in Sham Shui Po, said his sports association would keep its celebrations going.
“If we can sort out the differences with the newly elected councillors, we can work. But even if we can’t, we will just part ways, there’s no need to shout,” he said.
The Home Affairs Bureau said that, in 2019-20, about HK$19 million was allocated to all district councils for activities such as galas and sports and cultural events for the two days.
It would not say whether the government could reduce the budget for the celebrations, but said district councils would “be responsible for identifying suitable projects for implementation and sponsorship in the coming term”.
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