Depoliticization imperative for getting DCs back on track

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government is preparing a bill to amend the District Council Ordinance, with the aim of overhauling the city’s district councils (DCs) through a legislative process.

Under the ordinance, the DCs are tasked mainly with assisting the government in community affairs. They are defined as nonpolitical local organizations that have no power to legislate nor approve public expenditures — the two principal functions of a modern legislature. However, they deviated from their designated role and morphed into a platform for political confrontation after they were hijacked by anti-China agitators in recent years, particularly during the 2019-20 anti-extradition turmoil.

The highly politicized DCs failed terribly in fulfilling their duties in the past few years. For them to have a reason to continue to exist, they must be depoliticized and revert to their original role. This can be achieved only with a system overhaul that will more clearly define their functions, introduce effective methods for selecting councilors, and install eligibility vetting and performance-monitoring mechanisms. The District Councils (Amendment) Bill 2023 in the drafting process is expected to bring about a “face-lift” for DCs, as has been suggested by the government.

The proposed eligibility vetting mechanism embodies the principles of prioritizing national security as well as “patriots administering Hong Kong” in optimizing the HKSAR’s governing structure in the wake of the 2019 “black-clad” riots. It would help keep political saboteurs, as well as halfhearted aspirants, at bay.

Under the new electoral system introduced in 2021, an eligibility vetting mechanism has been put in place for the elections for the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and the chief executive, giving “patriots administering Hong Kong” a head start in its implementation. Legally speaking, “one country” is the premise and foundation of “two systems”; therefore, any election involving the governance of Hong Kong should have an eligibility vetting mechanism to exclude unpatriotic individuals from the governing structure, which is a matter of course.

The institution of an eligibility vetting mechanism for DC elections is a major milestone in Hong Kong’s governance, which can forestall the perversion of the functions of DCs from the outset.

The government proposals on improving governance at the district level suggest the reformed DCs will have a total of 470 councilors, comprising 179 government-appointed members, 88 directly elected members, and 176 indirectly elected members as well as 27 ex officio members.

Serving the people is not about chanting a few empty slogans and garnering votes, but about down-to-earth actions. This applies not only to district councilors but also LegCo members

The Basic Law establishes a political system in which Hong Kong enjoys executive, legislative, and judicial power, and the chief executive is accountable to the Central People’s Government on behalf of the special administrative region. In ranking, the chief executive and executive organs come before the legislative and judicial organs. Functionally, the executive organs have greater responsibility, as the chief executive is not only the leader of the HKSAR government but also the head of the HKSAR, and this forms a solid legal basis for the city’s executive-led governance.

The central government has laid down an increasingly clear requirement for the HKSAR government. In his speech marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, President Xi Jinping emphasized that “the chief executive and the government of the HKSAR in the driver’s seat are the first to be held accountable for the governance of the region”. Thus, upholding executive-led governance is a top priority.

The prospect of a smaller proportion of directly elected seats in the reformed DCs has raised concerns about “diminishing democracy”. Such views and worries are misplaced at best. DCs are not part of Hong Kong’s political structure in the first place; there is no mentioning of “district councils” at all in the Basic Law. DCs are essentially an “intermediary” and “setter” for the government in serving the public. DCs and the HKSAR government are a unified whole, and the former should cooperate with the latter to better serve the community. Therefore, the number of directly elected seats in DCs is irrelevant to democracy.

Indeed, many people care less about how district councilors are selected. They instead attach more importance to councilors’ dedication to their duties, their commitment to serve residents, and their ability to promote the welfare of the community. In other words, the success of the DC reform hinges on the quality of councilors’ services and performance, rather than the selection process.

The proposed reform will also introduce a performance monitoring mechanism of DC members’ performance, which can be initiated by the chairman or a motion of the DC. The concerned district councilor(s) will be investigated by a supervisory committee and subsequently dealt with pursuant to the outcome of the inquiry. They can also launch an appeal to the chief secretary for administration in the case of dispute. The Home and Youth Affairs Bureau will formulate and make public a set of administrative guidelines on the code of conduct of district councilors, including a list of “negative behaviors”.

The new arrangement is another highlight of the proposed reform. Previously, many DC members had no intention of serving the public, but kept themselves busy with politics, including campaigns advocating “Hong Kong independence” and instigating violence. That DC members now are not properly supervised during their four-year tenures is an utter anomaly.

There is no such thing called “unfettered power” in this world. For the elected DC members, electors’ endorsement is not a reason for unchecked behavior nor a refusal to perform their duties, let alone fomenting political confrontation. Serving the people is not about chanting a few empty slogans and garnering votes, but about down-to-earth actions. This applies not only to district councilors but also LegCo members. There were directly elected district councilors who faithfully performed their duties and won the hearts of local residents. Nonetheless, self-discipline must go along with a performance-monitoring mechanism. That should be the norm.

During his recent inspection trip in Hong Kong, Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, urged district councilors and members of the Community Care Teams to address the needs of the community in all aspects when he met with them. Xia’s remarks revealed the importance the central government attaches to improving governance at the district level.

The author is vice-chairman of the Committee on Liaison with Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Overseas Chinese of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the Hong Kong New Era Development Thinktank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.