Political stance trumps money in Hong Kong district council polls, as election records show big spenders still lost to pro-democracy rivals

Natalie Wong

The recent performance of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy novices at the district council polls has shown that money is no guarantee of victory, with their resource-rich rivals going down in one of the biggest losses ever for the bloc.

Among those who rode the wave of anti-government sentiment in a city gripped by protests since June, the win of part-time convenience store worker Chan Tsz-wai in Jordan South can be said to be the most dazzling, as he spent the least but raked in the most votes, according to a study of available election return records lodged with the Registration and Electoral Office (REO).

The election expenses declared by the 27-year-old first-time contender were only HK$13,681 (US$1,756) – 20 per cent of the spending limit of HK$68,800. Yet, Chan ousted Chris Ip Ngo-tung, former chairman of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council and a senior member of the city's wealthiest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Chan Tsz-wai spent the least but raked in the most votes. Photo: Edward Wong

Ip’s expenses were not yet available on Friday as authorities are releasing records in multiple rounds.

In the elections on November 25 last year, Chan garnered 1,516 votes, narrowly defeating Ip’s 1,451.

Rather than using tens of thousands of dollars on advertisements or assistants’ salaries, Chan spent money on clothing and hairspray for his public appearances, totalling just HK$1,812. The rest was spread over campaign advertisements, transport and miscellaneous items.

The district council elections were seen as a de facto referendum on the five demands of protesters amid a movement sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill. The campaign has since morphed into wider demonstrations against the government.

Chris Ip was ousted from Yau Tsim Mong District Council. Photo: May Tse

A record voter turnout, fuelled by anger against authorities for the handling of the political crisis, saw pro-democracy candidates sweep nearly 90 per cent of seats and take control of 17 out of 18 districts.

The REO required all 1,090 candidates competing for 452 seats citywide to report election expenses and donations by December 29.

After receiving the submissions, the REO has so far unclassified records of 34 candidates for public and media inspection.

Asked why he chose instead to splurge on shirts, election winner Chan Tsz-wai said: “As sportswear was my everyday outfit, I never had a proper shirt before the campaign.

“But I took my supporters’ advice to dress up a bit to give an impression to residents that I was serious about running in the race. I attribute all the glory to the sweat and blood of protesters.”

Not all pro-democracy candidates were as frugal as Chan, however. Nine-year Southern district incumbent Paul Zimmerman, who was re-elected in the Pok Fu Lam constituency, spent HK$63,627, including HK$6,000 on photo shoots and publicity materials. Zimmerman defeated his rivals Siu Wai-chung and Maxine Yao Jie-ning to win another term.

Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, one of the city’s biggest protest figures and convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, was elected in Sha Tin after spending HK$62,638, including more than HK$58,000 on advertising through social media platforms, foam board displays and 44,000 direct-mail pamphlets.

Paul Zimmerman was re-elected in the Pok Fu Lam constituency. Photo: Dickson Lee

In Kwun Tong, first-time pro-democracy candidate Jannelle Rosalynne Leung, 25, spent HK$43,304 as she defeated Hsu Hoi-shan in the Yuet Wah constituency.

Not far from where Chan was elected, in the Tsim Sha Tsui West constituency, long-time democracy advocate Frederick Fung Kin-kee, 66, suffered a humiliating drubbing despite having spent HK$59,165.

District councillors vow to pursue protesters’ demands in new term

From the available expense returns analysed by the Post, he was the candidate who spent the most money but received the fewest votes by far. Fung nearly lost his deposit of HK$3,000 because of insufficient ballots.

Although Fung was a former pro-democracy lawmaker, competition in his zone was vicious in a five-horse race that saw Fung’s rival from the same camp, Leslie Chan Ka-long, win by a landslide 48 per cent of the votes. The only pro-Beijing candidate there, Alex Poon King-wo of the DAB, received 38 per cent of ballots.

Jimmy Sham (right) celebrates with a supporter after winning a district council seat. Photo: AP

Fung, a seasoned politician, spent part of his election money on 34,500 pamphlets and mailed three rounds of publicity materials to his 3,614 constituents.

Advertisements alone cost Fung – who ran as an independent – HK$18,000, not counting the salary of an election agent and temporary workers who handed out pamphlets for him, ringing up another HK$25,000 in costs.

Having lost his long-held seat in Sham Shui Po to a pro-establishment rival in 2015, Fung insisted even though he was defeated again last year, he was more diligent than his rivals.

“I must be the most hardworking candidate in my constituency. I stood outside residential buildings for six hours every day to greet electors,” he said.

Former lawmaker Frederick Fung nearly lost his deposit. Photo: Jonathan Wong

For his campaign, Fung chose not to mention the ongoing protests but instead listed his contributions in his “42 years of serving Kowloon West”. He also displayed a photo of himself running in the city’s first district election back in 1983.

In contrast, opponent Leslie Chan, 39, a former assistant of Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, wrote “five demands, not one less” on the cover of his pamphlets.

In defeat, Fung lamented: “All my district contributions and groundwork in reaching out to residents were worth nothing while political demands loomed large amid the movement.”

Leslie Chan won by a landslide in a five-horse race that included Frederick Fung. Photo:

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said spending money on publicity and advertisement ultimately did not matter in the elections, because it was the candidates’ political stances that voters prioritised.

“What the candidates have previously done and whether people know about them were not important,” he said. “Many voters cast protest votes by choosing a candidate who held the highest chance, with a single aim to unseat the pro-establishment representative.”

But Choy said it was too soon to predict whether the same formula would apply to the Legislative Council elections in September.

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