When Paul Zinmerman rides through Pok Fu Lam on his motorbike, he knows he has left his mark.
The trees that line a main road in the southern Hong Kong Island neighbourhood are courtesy of a planting project, one of his first initiatives after being elected as the area’s District Councillor in 2010. Benches at bus stops – placed there in response to residents’ wishes – are an attempt to make the locale more liveable.
“If you allow people to sit, then the area becomes a bit more social,” Zimmerman told HKFP. “Even if they’re not waiting for the bus, it’s a place where they can relax.”
Zimmerman is the vice-chairperson of the Southern District Council, where he represents Pok Fu Lam, a quiet, middle class residential area home to a number of international schools.
His time as a District Councillor, however, is coming to a close. When the current District Council term concludes at the end of the year, so too will his tenure.
A day after the government announced earlier this month that it was planning to “improve” district administration, an overhaul that would see the number of publicly elected seats slashed, Zimmerman wrote to the 5,000-odd residents who have subscribed to his email newsletter. He said the changes would “ultimately [be] a loss for everyone – the public, the city, and the government at all levels.”
Authorities said change was necessary after District Councillors had “intentionally divided the society,” objected to the national security law and supported Hong Kong independence, without citing evidence for their accusations.
Zimmerman is an independent democrat who was formerly a founding member of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
“At the end of this year, I will have reached the age of 65. It will be a good time to step back,” he wrote in his newsletter.
‘The last real democratic institution’
Hong Kong’s colonial government established District Boards in 1982 with the aim of promoting participation in local affairs and residents’ sense of belonging. The municipal-level bodies, which oversaw neighbourhood day-to-day matters, were renamed District Councils in 1999.
These days, the District Councillors that remain in their roles do everything from handling complaints about noisy neighbours to meeting with government officials to oppose looming infrastructure projects.
During the last District Council elections in 2019, pro-democracy candidates – riding on a wave of support from Hongkongers sympathetic to the protests that year – saw an overwhelming victory, unseating pro-establishment members, many of whom had held their posts for multiple terms. Of the 479 seats, all bar 27 – which were reserved for rural committee chairs representing indigenous New Territories villages – were publicly elected.
More than half of those seats, however, have been vacant since 2021, when authorities mandated members to take an oath pledging allegiance to the Hong Kong government. Dozens were ousted after the government deemed their oaths invalid, while others resigned in protest.
Under the proposed overhaul, the number of publicly elected seats will be reduced to just 88, or less than 20 per cent. The remainder will be appointed by the chief executive or nominated by small-circle committees, members of which are chosen by the government.
Candidates for public election would also need to secure at least three nominations from each of the three small-circle committees, on top of nominations from voters in their own constituencies.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that district organisations are consultants to the government and are “not organs of political power.”
According to Zimmerman, the current structure of the local bodies allowed District Councillors to build intimate relationships with their community.
“The District Councils are a very effective and efficient way of providing services to the community and bridging the gap between government policy inaction and the community’s desires and needs,” Zimmerman said. They were, he added, the “last real democratic institution” in the city.
Future District Councils stacked with appointed members would make it harder to “get things done,” he said, adding that they would be unlikely to oppose plans advocated by the very government that gave them their jobs.
In Pok Fu Lam, where the government is spearheading a number of long-term development projects including a deep technology centre run by the University of Hong Kong and the expansion of the office complex at Cyberport, Zimmerman said he was concerned that such initiatives would go ahead without considering residents’ concerns.
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, has thrown their support behind the overhaul.
“The District Councils’ former composition had a number of flaws and loopholes… introducing improvements to the nomination threshold and a screening mechanism can prevent those causing chaos to Hong Kong and China from entering the District Councils, [therefore] protecting national security and comprehensively implementing the ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’ principle,” the party said in a statement.
Janet Ng, a District Councillor representing the Kowloon neighbourhood of Mei Foo, however, said future District Councils would be “top down” and merely execute government policies.
“[The new District Councillors] won’t even be living in the districts they represent. So how can they know what residents’ needs are?” Ng, an independent democrat, said.
When she attempted to raise concerns about the overhaul at a District Council meeting last week, government officials walked out, claiming the discussion was “out” of the District Councils’ scope.
“I definitely will not run again,” Ng, who was elected in 2015, told HKFP. “There will be no room for us to really help residents.”
The Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party which has seven members serving as District Councillors, said it was undecided on whether it would take part in the elections.
“We still need to talk to our members and collect their views. We have to consider things such as what our role would be, and what abilities we would have,” Lo Kin-hei, chairperson of the party, told HKFP.
‘Very hard’ for amateurs to run
On the other side of Hong Kong, independent democrat Osman Cheng admitted he was a relative newcomer to the world of district work. The 36-year-old, who represents the On Tai constituency in the Ma On Shan neighbourhood, was elected to the Sha Tin District Council in 2019.
Before the former advertising manager took the reins, the area was represented by members of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
“I haven’t decided [whether to run again]. But actually, it’s not for me to decide as I will need to get nominations from those three committees,” Cheng said, referring to the small-circle groups. “Not just myself, but for any amateurs who intend to run, it would be very hard.”
Currently, Sha Tin district is split into 41 constituencies, each represented by one District Council member. If the proposed overhaul is implemented, the district will be split into just four, with each represented by two District Councillors.
Widening the area that each District Councillor represents would stretch them thin, Cheng said. Future District Councillors may not have the time – or without the mandate of an elected figure, the will – to assist residents on bread-and-butter problems, he added.
“I also help elderly residents apply for government subsidies. Or when they’ve just returned from the mainland and don’t know how to switch the SIM cards back to their Hong Kong ones, they ask me.”
With around six months left of the current District Councils’ term, Cheng said he still has a couple of projects on his agenda. He told HKFP he was fighting for a circular bus route in Ma On Shan, a proposal that he said the Transport Department has agreed to.
The District Councillor also continues to ask residents living across the river from a sewage plant to report information about its stench, such as the wind direction and time of day when they smell the foul odour. He then compiles this data to send to the Drainage Services Department in hopes of addressing the persistent problem.
He added that he would miss serving residents, but that he questioned the effectiveness of future District Councils largely made up of members who did not go through the “baptism” of elections, in which candidates had to build relationships with the public and win their support.
“When the system has changed so much, I have to think about what my original intention [of being a District Councillor] was,” Cheng said.
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