Beatrice Chu, a pro-democracy district councillor for more than eight years, says Hong Kong’s new national security law has brought a marked change in official attitudes towards the councils, with some government bodies becoming increasingly unhelpful and condescending.
Chu was elected to Tuen Mun District Council in 2012, after losing her first bid in 2008 when she was a member of the Democratic Party. She served two full terms and was re-elected when democrats won a landslide victory in district councils across the city in November last year – an apparent show of solidarity with pro-democracy protesters.
Despite the significant change in the councils’ composition, growingcalls for democracy and a loss of faith in the city’s government, Chu said it was business as usual for the first six months of this year.
“It was just like what I experienced in the past eight years and I thought this could go on.”
However, she noticed a sharp change right after Beijing’s imposition on June 30 of the security law which criminalises subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
“The Home Affairs Department and the police force are quite arrogant and condescending. The Immigration Department just refused to answer any of my inquiries,” Chu told HKFP in an interview.
Since June 29, a group of detainees at Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre have fasted to protest against alleged abuse. The centre is in Chu’s constituency and she has been following up on their complaints, including sending enquiries to the Immigration Department and assisting a pastor who fasted in solidarity with the detainees.
In October, government officials walked out of a district council meeting scheduled to discuss the matter and no Immigration Department officers attended. The Home Affairs Department, which oversees district council operations, said the topic was incompatible with the council’s role and functions, even though councillors contended it was a local affair.
“The government seems to think that they can avoid many issues deemed to be inappropriate,” Chu said.
Article 61 of the District Councils Ordinance has become an effective tool to restrict the scope of discussions. It has been backed up by walkouts by government officials, and a refusal by the Home Affairs Department to offer venues or clerical services or include items on meeting agendas.
The curbs on discussion topics hit most district councils. In September, the Southern District Council chair and the newly elected Democratic Party chair Lo Kin-hei filed a legal challenge against a Home Affairs Department officer for refusing to perform her duty as council secretary.
The attitude contrasted with promises by the city’s leader last November. Two days after the elections, Chief Executive Carrie Lam acknowledged that voters had been expressing their views on many issues in society. She admitted that these included “deficiencies in governance” and “unhappiness with the time taken to deal with the current unstable environment.”
Last month Lam described the current district councils as quite “unusual” compared to previous years.
Chu fears the uncooperative attitude will soon spread to all government departments and have a bearing on issues intended to benefit the community.
She cited an infrastructure project due to start soon. In the past, government departments usually sought feedback from the local councillor whose constituency was involved. Such meetings could help fine-tune details by conveying residents’ views to government departments, Chu said.
This year, a project involving her constituency bypassed this usual procedure.
Another issue which she has been following closely throughout her term was traffic congestion caused by the opening of Harrow International School Hong Kong in 2012.
Since then, traffic in Castle Peak Road – one of the busiest main routes, connecting the district and Kowloon – has been snarled by the many private cars picking up and dropping off students. Chu estimated that public transport in rush hour had been reduced to 70 per cent of its normal capacity, seriously inconveniencing other residents in the district of north-western Hong Kong with a population of over 480,000.
With Chu’s intervention, the new intake of students each year has gradually adjusted to commuting by school bus. The transition involving all students will be completed this year.
According to Chu, the Education Bureau originally promised to include such criteria in Harrow’s renewal of registration which expired in August, but she had received no updates from the bureau as yet.
Such local issues may sound insignificant in the wider city but are highly relevant for residents in the districts concerned. Chu has endeavoured to stay connected with various departments and support her suggestions with statistics and facts, but feels the government has an unfriendly attitude even on less political matters.
“Is it still possible in the future to constantly exchange information with the government given the current relationship?” she questioned.
Many pro-democracy councillors – including several aged under 30 – are growing frustrated as hopes fade of bringing about change through the district council, Chu said.
By the end of this year hopes had been further dampened with the arrest of some district councillors, politicians going into exile and heavy sentences in protest-related cases.
The moves are having a chilling effect on Chu and her peers. She and several colleagues co-organised a fundraising campaign for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which supports the movement by selling cookies. The campaign was halted due to complaints that it was disseminating a pro-independence message.
“These days I often think to myself, what more can be done?” she said, amid the hurdles in the system and growing despair in the city.