Hong Kong is less than a month away from its first District Council elections since authorities introduced drastic changes to the procedures – slashing the number of seats chosen by the public to around 20 per cent, with the rest selected by the city’s leader, government-appointed committees and officials.

A banner for promoting the 2023 District Council Election. Photo: GovHK.
A banner for promoting the 2023 District Council Election. Photo: GovHK.

Plans to overhaul the elections were unveiled in May 2023 to ensure only “patriots” were elected, following a pro-democracy landslide at the 2019 polls in the wake of mass pro-democracy protests. That election saw a record high turnout of 71.2 per cent with some 2.94 million voters casting their ballots, and democrats took close to 400 of the 452 seats under the first-past-the-post system, securing control of 17 out of 18 councils.

Why was the District Council race overhauled?

The changes for the December 10 poll were as drastic as they were predictable. The electoral overhaul will ensure only “patriots” can govern Hong Kong, a principle laid down by Beijing when the electoral system for the Legislative Council was overhauled in 2021, sharply cutting the number of democratically elected seats.

The message was different back in 2019. Following the pro-democracy district council landslide that year, then-chief executive Carrie Lam said “the HKSAR Government respects the election results,” adding that the elections had been held “in a peaceful, safe and orderly manner.”

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Hong Kong government officials attend a press conference on May 2, 2023 about the proposed amendments to the District Councils. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said in a statement.

In 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping mandated a “patriots-only” political system for the city that saw the number of directly elected lawmakers sharply reduced.

It then fell on current Chief Executive John Lee to extend the overhaul to the district councils. As he announced the revamp this May, he described the councils as consultative bodies and not organs of political power, and said they should be “depoliticised.”

“It is the attempt to make Hong Kong independent and [an] attempt to cause disaster to Hong Kong society as a whole that we need to prevent,” Lee said.

district council election november 11 (16)
Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”

Though small factions of the “leaderless” protests called for independence for the city, it was never a demand of the movement.

Under the overhaul, the councils will have the fewest directly elected seats — 88 out of 470 – and the most appointees since they were introduced in 1982 under British colonial rule, when more than a quarter of the seats were democratically contested.

Lee has claimed the colonial government had attempted to prolong its political influence over Hong Kong by increasing the number of democratically elected seats to the legislature and to the district councils ahead of the 1997 handover.

“It was an attempt to make Hong Kong an independent or semi-independent political entity, hindering China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and the implementation of effective governance,” he said, citing a White Paper issued by China in 2021 on Hong Kong’s democratic progress.

New powers given to gov’t committees

The government had received 399 nominations from election hopefuls by the deadline on October 30, according to the Registration and Electoral Office.

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The District Council elections in 2019. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Among the candidates, 228 are running for 176 District Committee constituency seats, where the electorate consists of some 2,500 members of three district-level committees – the Area Committees, District Fight Crime Committees, and District Fire Safety Committees. These are stacked with pro-establishment figures.

A total of 171 candidates will compete for 88 seats in geographical constituencies – the democratically-elected seats. There will be seats for each of the 44 constituencies – and they will be chosen by 4.3 million registered voters. Under the overhauled system, the boundaries have been redrawn to reduce the constituencies to 44.

The city’s chief executive will appoint 179 councillors – a system that was previously abolished in 2016. The 27 ex-officio seats will remain.

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The District Council elections in 2019. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Even in the 88 democratically, or “directly”-elected seats, securing nominations was an uphill battle for non-establishment would-be candidates. They had to secure at least three nominations from each of the area, crime, and fire safety committees.

According to a 2020 report by HK01, 96 pro-establishment figures who lost in the 2019 District Council elections were later appointed to different area committees. As for those appointed this January, InMedia reported that many of the pro-establishment candidates voted out in the previous election remained as committee members.

The newly redrawn district boundaries. Photo: Electoral Affairs Commission.
The newly redrawn district boundaries. Photo: Electoral Affairs Commission.

The geographical constituencies have also been redrawn by the government – a function that used to be under the remit of the Electoral Affairs Commission, the city’s elections watchdog. The 452 geographical constituencies were merged into 44 much larger ones.

The two councillors for Wong Tai Sin West, the city’s largest constituency after the borders were redrawn, will be responsible for more than 218,500 people. The area had 13 constituencies in the 2019 polls, with the largest one covering 22,000 people.

Why were the nomination rules controversial?

Just getting in contact with the committee members proved problematic for potential candidates when authorities refused to disclose the members’ contact details or even their first names. Chief Executive Lee rejected criticism of the process, saying some would-be candidates were not endorsed because they had not gained the trust of the nominators.

Lo Kin-hei
Chairperson of the Democratic Party Lo Kin-hei. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

By the October 30 deadline, all pro-democracy hopefuls – and even some from the pro-establishment camp – had failed to secure endorsements and were shut out of the race. They included the six hopefuls from the Democratic Party and the two from the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood.

Moderate party Third Side also failed to get enough nominations, while Roundtable, a pro-establishment group founded by entrepreneur and lawmaker Michael Tien, only secured enough nominations for one of its five hopefuls.

YouTube video
Michael Tien endorsed the electoral screening plan in 2021 before falling victim to the new vetting process in 2023.

The self-styled “enlightened” pro-establishment lawmaker said his party approached more than 240 committee members but still failed to secure nominations. It was even snubbed by Executive Council convenor Regina Ip, who had initially offered to nominate his members.

The controversy resulted in a judicial review being launched against the government, which Executive Councillor Ronny Tong had predicted could happen unless the government provided direct contact details for nominators.

The threshold for entering the race was “extremely high” under the overhauled system, said Tong, whose think tank Path of Democracy was only able to secure enough nominations for one member.

An HKFP analysis found that 75 per cent of candidates in the direct election also sat on the nominating committees. Among the 171 candidates running for the 88 democratically-elected seats, 129 were members of the three committees responsible for deciding who could enter the race.

Ming Pao also reported that nominators had made multiple endorsements involving 18 district council candidates for Kowloon City, Tai Po, Tuen Mun, and Wan Chai, apparently in contravention of electoral regulations. In response, the Registration and Electoral Office said that all candidates had received valid nominations, but it did not address the issue of whether the multiple nominations were deemed invalid.

The District Council Eligibility Review Committee, chaired by the city’s number two official Eric Chan, confirmed on Friday that all 399 election hopefuls had passed a patriotism assessment required under the Beijing-mandated system.

The eligibility review is an extension of the overhauled Legislative Council vetting mechanism which saw candidates subject to checks by the police National Security Department, the city’s national security committee and a separate reviewing committee.

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A China National Day patriotic gathering in Tsim Sha Tsui on Sunday, October 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution in June 2020 following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts – broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, led to hundreds of convictions amid new legal precedents, whilst dozens of civil society groups disappeared. The authorities say it restored stability and peace to the city, rejecting criticism from trade partners, the UN and NGOs, despite an overall rise in crime.

How was Hong Kong’s electoral overhaul viewed?

When veteran Hong Kong litigant Kwok Cheuk-kin launched his legal challenge against the nomination system for the “patriots-only” race, he asked the court to repeal the requirement for candidates to receive at least three nominations from government-appointed committees.

He cited Article 26 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that “Permanent residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in accordance with law.”

When introducing the new system this May, the government itself cited the city’s mini-constitution, which states that district organisations were not meant to be “organs of political power,” with justice chief Paul Lam saying that the government has no legal obligation to form the councils.

Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak said after the introduction of the overhaul that voters were still entitled to nominate and select councillors, and that the elections would not infringe upon their rights.

Some pro-establishment figures have played down expectations for next month’s polls. Exco convener Regina Ip has said that while a high voter turnout should not be expected, it should not define the credibility of the exercise.

Those remarks were made amid a decline in the number of registered voters – nearly 80,000 from 2022 – marking the second consecutive annual decrease. Last year marked the first time in 10 years that the number of voters had fallen, with a decrease of around 60,000.

Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman announced that he would not stand in the race, saying the revamp would “destroy the final bastion of democracy” in the city and result in “a loss for everyone.”

Paul Zimmerman
Southern District Council vice-chairperson Paul Zimmerman thanks voters after being re-elected to the Pok Fu Lam constituency seat in November 2019. Photo: Paul Zimmerman, via Facebook.

But despite the absence of any opposition, the head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Gary Chan, has said the election would be “more intense” than in years past.

“This is a competition among patriots. This is an election that involves competing on political platforms, ability and service… so I think this election will be more intense than in the past,” he said. “In the past, the elections were polarised. If you didn’t vote pro-establishment, you voted pan-democrat. Now, everyone is a patriot.”

Under the changes to the district councils, the authorities consider them as “more of an extension of the administration” rather than as elected representatives of public opinion, political scientist Ivan Choy told HKFP.

Lawmaker Regina Ip reacting to the 2023 Budget on February 22, 2023.
Lawmaker Regina Ip reacting to the 2023 Budget on February 22, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The sharp drop in voters was seen as an indication that the public felt their votes would not have any real influence.

Democratic Party chairperson Lo Kin-hei told US government-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia in August that the decline in registered voters should be attributed to the emigration wave as well as the election overhaul, as it reduced the number of directly elected seats.

“For young people or the general public, the impact of casting a vote has significantly diminished. The extent to which I can influence lawmakers is so minuscule that it diminishes the desire to participate,” Lo said in Cantonese.

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.