By Sang Young
We may take functional constituencies for granted in Hong Kong, but they are actually a unique feature of the city’s legislature and, as this year’s LegCo elections get closer, it’s worth looking in greater detail at how they work and who exactly gets to vote. For example, Hong Kong’s IT sector had a total of 82,973 employees or business owners as of 2014, according to an industry survey conducted that year. But among them, only 5,650 or seven per cent were eligible voters in the functional constituency (FC) of the IT sector last year, as shown by information from the Registration and Electoral Office. What’s more, most of these votes are now cast by means of corporate voting, or in other words, only business owners get to vote. The really bad news is that such an uneven concentration of votes in the hands of the few is not uncommon in other functional constituencies as well.
One of a kind – Hong Kong is the only place on earth which elects representatives of trades and professions as lawmakers
Functional constituencies came into being back in the British colonial era. The release of the Green Paper on Representative Government in 1984 set in motion the territory’s political reform. The introduction of functional constituencies back then was meant to be the beginning of representative politics in Hong Kong.
The last British Governor, Chris Patten, went one step further in 1995 to revamp the electoral system in a bid to make it more representative of the populace. Under his proposal, nine seats of the Legislative Council were to be elected from nine constituencies in which the eligible electorate altogether was extended to 2.7 million. Individual voting also replaced corporate voting to broaden the franchise. However, such arrangements were abolished since the 1997 handover.
Even looking back in history, an electoral system that is based on trades or professions is rare. Professor Ma Ngok from the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong once described the city as the only place on earth that relies on functional constituencies to elect the members of its legislature.
100-odd business owners voting on behalf of over 100,000 industry members
The functional constituency for the insurance industry is of a similar size to the IT sector, with about 100,000 practitioners. But as of last year, the sector had a mere 128 registered voters or 0.1 per cent of those in the business, and all of them were business owners.
In a bid to reverse the situation, the sector’s pro-democracy pressure group Insurance Arise is now advocating that the franchise be broadened to include insurance agents, actuaries and other industry professionals, according to the group’s spokesman Kelvin Lee. He said the current electoral system based on corporate voting is fundamentally flawed in that it only reflects the views of those at the industry’s management level. A truly representative electoral system within the insurance sector is necessary if the industry is to pursue better development for the industry as a whole, he added.
No more ‘shampoo boat’ remarks from my supposed representative
The financial industry alone has two representatives from two separate sectors – namely finance and financial services – in the 70-member Legislative Council. But as of last year, the two sectors had only 121 and 551 registered voters respectively, all of whom were business owners. The electorate of the two sectors altogether represents a mere 0.3 per cent of the almost 200,000 workforce in finance in Hong Kong.
Financier Conscience, the sector’s pro-democracy pressure group, said they were worried not only by the lack of a mandate for their representative, but also the competency of their representative as a lawmaker in the Legislative Council, said the group’s convener Eric Yip.
Yip pointed to the controversial remark the finance sector legislator Ng Leung-sing made recently when speaking in the Legislative Council chamber. Without substantiating his claims with any evidence, Ng accused the then missing Causeway Bay Books owner Lee Bo of taking a “shampoo boat” from Hong Kong to smuggle himself into mainland China looking for prostitutes. Yip said the embarrassing and groundless accusation from their supposed representative caused concerns among many people in the industry, but they have yet to be able to make their voices heard, since they have no votes at present.
Increased representation by replacing corporate voting with individual voting
While the abolition of functional constituencies remains a distant dream at the moment, the consensus among most professional groups across different disciplines is that the franchise within each functional constituency should be broadened to give the FC lawmakers a greater popular mandate.
Felix Fung from Act Voice, another pressure group from the insurance sector, said the electorate of his and many other sectors can be easily and greatly broadened to include existing members officially recognized for their respective professional qualifications.
The disappointing performance of many FC lawmakers in the Legislative Council has convinced most professionals and industry employees currently denied votes that the existing electoral system is a failure, and one that perpetuates injustice by allowing the minority to decide the fate of the majority. If the current lawmakers were to go on clinging on to their privileges while shunning the majority in their respective sectors, discontent among the majority would mount day-by-day and embed additional instability in the already failing governance of the SAR.
Sang Young is an IT Voice member and a systems security engineer.