The proportion of female candidates running for democratically elected seats in Hong Kong’s upcoming “patriots-only” District Council elections is the highest in the race’s 24-year history, but a scholar has said the increase does not necessarily translate into real diversity or heightened concern for women’s rights.

Ng Ching-ching district council election
Ng Ching-ching, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, campaigns for votes on Nov. 12, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Around 28 per cent, or 48 out of 171 candidates competing for 88 seats in the geographic constituencies are women. When Hong Kong held its first District Council elections in 1999, female candidates made up just 16 per cent of the pool.

During the most recent race in 2019, when democrats won a landslide victory, the proportion of female contenders was 20.4 per cent.

The city’s politics and public affairs have traditionally been dominated by men. But even as a record proportion of female candidates have stepped forward to run in the overhauled district elections, a scholar cautioned against concluding that this was a step forward for Hong Kong’s gender equality.

hong kong gender election

According to HKFP’s analysis, almost 60 per cent of the female candidates are members of pro-establishment parties. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) are best represented among the female candidates, with each party fielding nine.

The remainder did not declare an affiliation. None of the candidates are from opposition parties, which were shut out from the elections as they were unable to secure enough nominations from pro-establishment figures.

In terms of occupation, nearly half of the female candidates are district councillors or community workers affiliated with their parties, according to information self-reported to the government. Most of the others are professionals – many are business managers and company directors – while there are also two lawyers, a solicitor and a social worker. Six candidates did not provide their current occupation.

hong kong gender election

Hong Kong will see its first district race since the authorities overhauled the electoral system, requiring candidates to obtain nominations from committees stacked with pro-government figures and introducing a vetting process to ensure patriotism. The number of democratically elected seats was also slashed from 452 to 88.

Ruby Lai, an assistant professor at Lingnan University’s Department of Sociology and Social Policy, said that while the increase in the proportion of female candidates was significant, it was not necessarily good news for the gender equality movement.

“The question is, does it mean that gender equality in the context of Hong Kong women’s participation in politics, or in the District Councils, has improved?” Lai said in Cantonese.

hong kong gender election

The candidates’ occupations, and the fact that most are affiliated with a political party, suggested that people had to be “nurtured” by a party, or be a working professional – implying a certain status in society – to compete in the race.

“We have to look at other things, such as whether all the women who want to run are able to, and the substance of the candidates’ platforms,” Lai added.

A homemaker with deep ties in a community and an interest in serving the district may not be able to run in the overhauled elections, the assistant professor said, as it was unlikely she would have the right connections.

A large banner is displayed to promote the 2023 District Council election on November 14, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A large banner is displayed to promote the 2023 District Council election on November 14, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Lai added that unlike some countries that have affirmative measures in place, in which governments reserve a number of seats for females or political parties field a minimum number of female candidates, Hong Kong is not known to have such practices.

‘New hope’

Activists have long said that Hong Kong lacks protection for women, and that existing laws are insufficient for deterring sex discrimination.

In Chief Executive John Lee’s Policy Address in October, which lasted for well over three hours, two sentences were read out under a section called “Women’s Development.” They described the government’s plans to set up a “dedicated Women Affairs Team” and a “one-stop family and women information portal.” Authorities have yet to announce further information on the initiatives.

John Lee's cabinet
Chief Executive John Lee’s cabinet. Photo: GovHK.

The gender disparity among District Council candidates is consistent with males dominating Hong Kong politics, occupying the top rungs of government and holding more executive and legislative posts.

In the Legislative Council, also overhauled in 2021 with significantly fewer democratically elected seats, only 18 per cent of lawmakers – 16 out of 90 – are women. Just six out of 26 officials in Lee’s cabinet are women, and the Executive Council – which advises him – has 29 men and eight women.

The female candidates running in this year’s district elections are well aware of the lack of gender representation in public affairs. A number have emphasised on social media that they are the sole female hopeful in their district, and will strive to support women in their community.

hong kong gender election

Angel Pang, a candidate running in Central district who has not declared an allegiance to a political party, is among those who have been vocal about the challenges faced by women. At the top of her five-point political platform is a promise to provide support for working women and set up a “wellness centre” where they can seek help with childcare, counselling and healthcare services.

The 49-year-old image consultant also said on Facebook that she would push for free pre-marital counselling services and support for separated parents, as well as encourage firms to enact family-friendly measures.

Across the city in the Tai Po North constituency, Sharon Lok is running against five male candidates with the campaign slogan: “A female district councillor will bring new hope.”

Lok said in her campaign that through her work with the Federation of Hong Kong Guangdong Community Organisations, a group serving people from Guangdong province, she had come across many residents who said they hoped to have a female district councillor who could reflect their views as women, mothers and wives.

hong kong gender election

“[I] come from a low-income family. I have always been passionate about district work and I have over ten years of experience serving communities. I’ve found that women are a majority in the communities (including Tai Po North),” Lok wrote in Chinese. “I’ve seen the responsibility and wisdom of women in their [daily] lives, in the workplace and in their families, witnessing how women hold up community services and impact others with their lives.”

Lai, the academic, said the emphasis that they were the only female candidate in their district’s race was a “selling point.”

“It’s not good or bad, it’s just a strategy,” Lai said. “The strategy reflects that gender equality and female participation in politics are accepted or even embraced by society. In that case, it’s a good thing.”

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.