Authorities tell us that they will let us know soon what their plans are for Hong Kong’s District Councils (DCs). Hong Kong and Macau Affairs director Xia Baolong repeatedly emphasised the role and value of the councils during his visit to Hong Kong. He said that the councils should “return” to their advisory role, a reference to the political agendas of many DCs after the pan-democratic opposition’s overwhelming victory in 2019 polls.

Xia Baolong
Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong attends the opening ceremony of the National Security Education Day on April 15, 2023. Photo: HKMAO.

The outcome reflected wide-spread public anger with the performance of then-leader Carrie Lam’s government. Not surprisingly, Xia pointed out that DCs should be staffed by patriots. And, while they should support the government and the chief executive, DCs should “serve as a bridge of communication between the government and the public.” They should reflect “real” public opinion to the government, Xia said. We may safely conclude that authorities will retain Hong Kong’s DCs in some form going forward.

The Basic Law makes clear that district councils are “consultative” bodies, that is, advisory, and “not organs of political power” (非政權性的) (Art. 97). They may be responsible for providing services in areas like culture, recreation and environmental sanitation. On January 2, 2020 there were 479 district councillors spread across Hong Kong’s 18 districts, of whom 457 were elected and 27 appointed by rural committees. By October 2021, in the wake of the National Security Law and Hong Kong’s new electoral arrangements, more than 70 per cent of councillors had been expelled, resigned, detained, or fled Hong Kong.  Such is the situation today.

November 25 polytechnic polyu tsim sha tsui
Newly-elected District Councillors gathered in Tsim Sha Tsui on November 25, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

District councils perform several functions, some acknowledged and others not. First, as Xia has pointed out, DCs advise the government on issues relating to their districts. These may include land zoning issues, public transportation, proposed government and private infrastructure projects, and the location of various public services from landfills to elderly care homes and housing estates.

Second, Xia expressed his hope that DCs will reflect “real” public opinion to the government. These two functions are related, because DCs should not be advising the government based on their capture by private vested interests. 

Public participation in the selection of DC members is an efficient and effective way to ensure that the councils reflect “real” public opinion. Since 1999, we have elected at least 75 per cent of councillors directly via universal suffrage. In 2019, we elected 94 per cent of councillors directly in elections that reflected “real” public opinion. Authorities were not happy with our choices then.

Kenny Lai Kwong WaiMa Hang Chung Hong Kong District Council 2019 "November 24"
Kenny Lai Kwong-Wai campaigning in Ma Hang Chung in 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

During his visit, Xia repeated the verdict by the authorities that the 2019 protests and unrest were an aborted “colour revolution.” Protests, he said, are not the only way to express opinion, and were easily hijacked and politicised by the opposition. The protests were “a permanent pain and scar in Hong Kong history that shall never be forgotten.” In his view, the 2019 council election, carried out in the midst of the protests, allowed pan-democratic councillors to “manipulate” the councils. “Hong Kong seems peaceful now but the source of unrest has not been uprooted and eliminated,” Xia said. “Stay vigilant against anti-China forces disguised with values such as democracy, freedom and people’s livelihood.”

Taken together, this understanding of Hong Kong’s current situation means that “real” opinion is a subset of public opinion. Yet, understanding public opinion is critical because it is the bedrock of Hong Kong’s stability. If the government listens only to the opinion of patriots of its own choosing, organised in loud, one-dimensional echo chambers, authorities cannot understand people’s needs and concerns. We behave based on these needs and concerns.

What then to make of Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Eric Tsang’s recent statement that any “patriotic” citizen (one who loves the country and loves Hong Kong), regardless of party affiliation, may participate in the political life of Hong Kong? Patriotic pan-democrats value democracy, freedom and people’s livelihood. They/we also value transparency, accountability, and participation. Are these off limits now?

Erick Tsang
Erick Tsang. File Photo: GovHK.

Reports indicate that the authorities will select most DC members either directly by the patriots-only Election Committee, or indirectly by local government-appointed committees. Some also may be elected. The Election Committee is the same body that selected most of our current Legislative Councillors. Recent polls indicate that our Legislative Council (LegCo) members have very low name recognition among the public. The gap between Legco and the public is very real. The polls say, experts tell us, that citizens value Legco members who have a critical capacity, the ability to monitor or supervise the government, and who actually propose solutions to people’s problems. These Legco members, apparently in short supply, the public appreciate.

Allowing the Election Committee to select most district councillors may result in echo-chamber-style councils. Even if there are some elected members, based on the experience of the 2021 Legco elections, authorities curate the contests to ensure their desired outcome. In this scenario only officially selected councillors would have opinions that count, that is “real” public opinion. This would be a dangerous development because it undermines stability. As Xia reminds us, stability in Hong Kong is fragile.

District councils need authentic voices that represent the people of Hong Kong. Elections are a credible means to produce such an outcome. Elections also bring legitimacy, a value in short supply in Hong Kong now. Polls show that only about 26 per cent of the Hong Kong people trust the government. 

A third mostly unacknowledged function of district councils is to serve as a testing ground for the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing recruitment of party members in Hong Kong. Candidates for party membership require continuous testing, and re-establishing district councils in some form allows authorities to scale up recruitment.

Still, it is as a source of ‘real’ public opinion that most citizens should be concerned about our district councils. Government desperately needs a better understanding of what the community needs, our priorities, and our hopes for the future. Authentic participation is the key to rebuilding trust and legitimacy.

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John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.