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What is a district councillor?

District councillors are local representatives on the 18 district councils in Hong Kong; they are consultative bodies on district administration and affairs, with administrative support from the Home Affairs Department.

Most councillors are elected every four years, although in the past there were ex officio members who were also chairmen of Rural Committees in the New Territories, and members appointed by the Chief Executive.

In the new term of the District Council, all the appointed seats are abolished, and there will be 431 elected seats in the same number of constituencies. The 27 ex officio members stay.

Sai Kung District Council meeting. File Photo: GovHK.
Sai Kung District Council meeting. File Photo: GovHK.

What can/can’t they do?

As consultative bodies, the councils’ powers are limited. They can advise the government on community matters such as use of public facilities and services, district well-being programmes and use of public funds for local public works and community activities.

If funds are allocated to the district, they can undertake projects such as environmental improvements, the promotion of recreational and cultural activities, and community activities within the districts.

But as councillors cannot make laws or allocate public funds in the councils, their roles are rather passive. Their decisions are not binding on the government.

No matter whether pro-Beijing camp, pro-democracy camp or independents, district councillors are often criticised for spending money on holding banquets or community activities for voters, rather than making permanent improvements in their districts.

DAB party thanking voters after the 2011 District Council Election.
DAB party thanking voters after the 2011 District Council Election. Photo: Facebook/DAB Tuen Mun Branch.

What is the composition of a district council?

In the 2011 district council election, there were on average 17,000 people living in a constituency in a district. However, on average just 9,000 in each constituency have registered as voters. Generally, the turnout rate in an election is between 30 and 40 percent. Elected district councillors mostly receive 1,000 to 3,000 votes, and win by a majority of a few hundred votes.

The latest statistics on voter registration show that there has been a surge in both young people and relatively older people registering as voters, after last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protest. A 5.1 percent increase has been seen for the age group between 18 and 20, but there was an 18 percent increase in the 66 to 70 age group compared with last year.

The highest number of voters is also seen in the older age group; there are 484,988 voters in the over 71-year-old group, out of the total of 3,693,492 voters.

A study by the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre showed that older voters were more likely to vote in District Council elections. Older voters are usually more likely to vote for pro-Beijing camp candidates as such candidates have more resources to solve local issues in the districts.

In the last term of the District Council, the pro-Beijing camp won 299 seats out of 412, the pro-democracy camp won 103, and ten winners were independents. Chairs of all 18 districts belong to the pro-Beijing camp.

Results of the 2011 District Council.
Results of the 2011 District Council. The deeper the red colour in the districts, the more votes the pro-Beijing camp has received. Photo: Stand News.

Are they paid?

About 54 percent of the district councillors in the last term were full time. But no matter whether they are taking the job full time or part time, they are still paid the same.

In the new term to be elected, district councillors will be paid HK$29,624 per month and chairs will be paid double that amount. They can also apply for subsidies from the government.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in his 2015 policy address that the government would actively consider providing additional manpower and resources to take forward the concept of “addressing district issues at the local level and capitalising on local opportunities”.

An election ad of the government. Photo: Gov HK.
An election ad of the government. Photo: Gov HK.

Why should I vote then? 

Although district councillors do not have much power to reform their districts, they can still push forward policies for the government to consider, such as suggesting bus routes, introducing environmental measures in the constituencies to save residents’ spending on electricity, and mediating in disputes in owners’ associations.

If any party or camp can win more than half of the seats in a district, they can control the district council and have better bargaining power. Supporters of the pro-Beijing camp, the pro-democracy camp and independents should all vote to make sure they are represented in the council, rather than being subject to a tyranny of the majority.

For instance, controversial district projects such as the “Tai Po Tiananmen Square” could be stopped and re-discussed if the pro-Beijing group did not have an absolute majority in the Tai Po District Council.

A Chinese University scholar said that if the turnout rate was as high as in Legislative Council elections, pan-democrats could actually win a majority of seats and the whole District Council scene would be changed.

District councillors of Democratic Party and Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood also played a huge role in the excessive lead in water scandal, by both exposing it and following up in the districts to help the residents.

Councillors can also be elected as lawmakers, through the “super district council” seats. Also, 117 members of the election committee to pick the Chief Executive are district councillors elected by each other.

Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung campaigning. Photo: Youngspiration via Facebook.
Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung campaigning. Photo: Youngspiration via Facebook.

Why is this year different?

After the pro-democracy Occupy protest last year, there are more new and young candidates running for the election — some call them the “umbrella soldiers” — who decided to run in the district council election after joining the protest..

New groups such as Youngspiration, Island West Dynamic Movement, Tuen Mun Community Concern Group, North of the Rings and Tsz Wan Shan Constructive Power have all grabbed huge media interest. They mostly clash with pro-Beijing camp candidates, but in some constituencies also with the pro-democracy camp.

They could provide some changes to the districts, although their chances are commonly seen as grim as their preparation time for the election is less than a year.

However, some “fake umbrella soldiers” and candidates with confusing backgrounds have aroused attention, so voters may find it harder to distinguish candidates they approve of.

Fewer pan-democrat candidates are running this year due to limited resources.

Pro-Beijing parties which have won uncontested seats.
Pro-Beijing parties which have won uncontested seats.

What is going on with uncontested seats?

The government announced in the gazette that there are 68 uncontested constituencies, two more than the original number 66 as the nominations of two candidates in contested constituencies were voided. Voters will not be able to vote in those constituencies.

Since there was just one candidate in those constituencies, they automatically became district councillors, such as Federation of Trade Unions lawmakers Alice Mak Mei-kuen and Kwok Wai-keung, and former China Liaison Office top official Wong Chun-ping.

The pro-Beijing DAB Party claimed 20 uncontested seats, the most of all parties. There were also two independent candidates who are considered pan-democrats automatically elected.

What is the issue with “faux independent” candidates?

Over 180 people running in the upcoming district council elections are members of pro-Beijing or pan-democratic groups but claim to be “independent” candidates.

They could be members of pro-Beijing local groups such as the New Territories Association of Societies, or a member of China’s CPPCC.

They could also be pro-democracy candidates who do not belong to any pan-democrat parties, such as “umbrella soldiers” who decided to declare as independent “third force”.

Currently, candidates can voluntarily declare their political affiliation. Election laws do not require candidates to disclose every political affiliation.

Legislative Council Hong Kong
Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Why can district councillors also be lawmakers?

There are no laws to say people cannot be both.

However, if lawmakers are also district councillors, they will usually not be able to spend a lot of time in their districts.

In the 2011 election, lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan was running as a district council candidate, but he was attacked by his Federation of Trade Unions opponent on the grounds that he would be too busy and not be able to come to the district to serve voters. He lost the election.

What is a “super district councillor”?

A “super district councillor” is a lawmaker of the District Council (Second) functional constituency. Candidates of the seat must be district councillors, and nominated by 15 other district councillors. There are five “super district councillor” seats.

They are seen as important seats as many motions in the LegCo are voted down because they did not pass in the functional constituencies, so more seats in the functional constituencies could make a difference.

As “super district councillor” Chan Yuen-han had announced she will not run for a district council again, more candidates are running in the election in the hope of becoming a district councillor, and getting a ticket to be a “super district councillor” candidate in the LegCo election next year.

Campaign posters of Albert Ho
Campaign posters of Albert Ho. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

What are the “hot districts” that people should look at?

Democratic Party lawmaker and incumbent district councillor Albert Ho Chun-yan is facing a fierce challenge by five other candidates, the highest number of opponents in the entire election.

Incumbent “super district councillors” and lawmakers running in the election are also an important part of the race as it may decide their political future.

Although the “umbrella soldiers” are unlikely to win, it will be interesting to see if they will try out new campaigning methods, and will continue staying in the constituencies to serve the residents even if they lose.

Every “faux independent” candidate should be observed.

When is the election and what happens on that day?

The election will take place on November 22. Voters can vote in a designated station in their registered constituencies, between 7:30am and 10:30pm.

Candidates can campaign on the election day. Some candidates would say their racing situation is in danger before the election, but most would start the “emergency calls” in the afternoon around 3:00 or 4:00pm, after they receive some data from exit polls.

The votes will be counted right after polling stations are closed. Results usually come in after midnight.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.