District Council reform must return to the Basic Law’s legislative intent

District organizations (DOs) are an integral part of the governance structure of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Article 97 of the Basic Law stipulates: “District organizations which are not organs of political power may be established in the HKSAR, to be consulted by the government of the Region on district administration and other affairs, or to be responsible for providing services in such fields as culture, recreation and environmental sanitation.” Article 98 stipulates: “The powers and functions of the DOs and the method for their formation shall be prescribed by law.” The legislative intent of the Basic Law in establishing the DOs is to boost the HKSAR government’s governance capacity. At the same time, the Basic Law strictly limits the DOs’ functions and powers, granted and prescribed by the government. For the Basic Law, DOs are nonpolitical bodies. District Councils (DCs) have been important DOs both before and after Hong Kong’s return to China.

Following the promulgation of the Basic Law and even before that, the composition and powers of the DCs were incessantly politicized by the departing British and have increasingly deviated from the legislative intent of the Basic Law. Ironically, politicization has continued to intensify in the HKSAR. More seriously, the DC elections held during the 2019 riots resulted in the complete domination of DCs by the anti-China and anti-government elements as well as their foreign patrons. The DCs thereafter became a venue for fierce political struggles with the government and obstruction of governance as well as a platform for the advocates of “Hong Kong independence” to wreak havoc. At a time of crisis, the central government had no alternative but to act decisively to expel all the belligerent elements from the DCs.

The term of the DCs elected in 2019 will end at the end of 2023. To return the operation of the DCs to the legislative intent of the Basic Law, the central government and the HKSAR government are now planning to reform the DCs.

In this regard, I offer some observations here.

First, the functions and powers of DCs must fully comply with the Basic Law provisions on DOs. As advisory bodies created by the government, they are in essence the extension of the administration and its tool of governance. Not being organs of political power, the powers and resources of DCs do not come from the provisions of constitutional laws, nor are they “local governments” that enjoy constitutional powers and undertake governance functions. The operation of DCs should embody the principle of “executive-led government” at the district level. In addition, the work of the DCs should be strictly confined to district affairs — the aspirations and needs of the residents — and use the powers and resources conferred by the government to provide residents with cultural, recreational, environmental sanitation, and other services to improve their living conditions and quality of life.

Second, the central government and the HKSAR government should pay more attention to the DCs in the future. In the last several decades, there has been a salient trend in the DCs receiving diminishing attention from the government. After Hong Kong was scheduled to return to China in 1997, the colonial government no longer needed the DCs to formally play the role of pro-British representatives of public opinion during the Sino-British negotiation over Hong Kong’s future; hence their political importance in the city rapidly evaporated. At the same time, the Chinese government’s “united front” work in Hong Kong has achieved results at the district level. Many district councilors were appointed by Beijing as “district affairs consultants” and were increasingly seen as “renegades” by the colonial government.

After the reunification, the opposition was adept in using the legislature, the mass media, and many social organizations to challenge the HKSAR government, causing the latter to spend a lot of energy and time on them. Attention to and support for the DCs has become increasingly meager. As the opposition had over time gained greater influence in the DCs resulting from the enlargement of the proportion of directly elected seats in these bodies, the government was even more reluctant to rely on the DCs as an instrument of governance. However, after the central government brought order out of chaos in Hong Kong by expelling the subversives from Hong Kong’s governance structure, how to make good use of DCs to achieve good governance in the future becomes a subject that needs to be carefully studied.

Third, DC reform must be conducive to “executive-led government”. DCs need to fully and actively support and cooperate with the government so that its decisions and policies can be effectively implemented in the districts. In the past, under the “connivance” and “helplessness” of the government, DCs were often informally granted some kind of “veto power”, which means that if a certain DC vetoes a project that the government intends to implement in the district concerned or objects to an “obnoxious” facility such as a landfill or a columbarium, then the government “must” respect the opinion of that DC and withdraw the relevant initiative. This unwritten norm in effect expands the power of DCs and weakens the system of “executive-led government”. This “veto power” should not exist in the revamped DC structure.

Fourth, as DOs that are in close contact with the residents of a district, district councilors should act as a bridge between them and the government, accurately convey and explain government policies and decisions to residents, and win their support for the government. At the same time, district councilors should also be the “eyes and ears” of the government. The Home and Youth Affairs Bureau, the Home Affairs Department, and the District Offices should be the most important channels for the government to grasp the social situation and public opinion, and their functions in this regard should be further strengthened. The government needs to pay more attention to the work of DCs and forge close ties with and actively cooperate with them. To this end, the government needs to establish a more complete and effective system for leading and handling district administrative work, with perhaps the chief secretary for administration or his/her deputy leading the work of the entire government in district affairs. The District Officers dispatched to the districts should have the necessary status and power to coordinate the work of various government departments in the district. And the government departments involved in district affairs should be able to flexibly allocate and mobilize manpower and resources to cope with the differences in the needs of various districts. Significantly, the government should deploy more young officials who are considered “rising stars” to work in the districts. Their performance there should be an important criterion for promotion.

To make the work of DCs more effective, it is advisable to delegate more resources to them so that they can deliver more appropriate and down-to-earth services and facilities to residents. To allow DCs to better serve residents, and to promote healthy competition among DCs in this respect, we can consider entrusting DCs with tasks and services that allow them to experiment with innovative methods. If the effectiveness of the DCs’ work can be improved through competition, it will improve the overall governance of Hong Kong, the prestige of the HKSAR government and residents’ overall level of happiness.

Fifth, the reform of DCs must be conducive to the realization of “patriots administering Hong Kong”. DCs are an important part of Hong Kong’s political system and should be run by patriots. In the new DC elections, it is advisable to allow the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee to also conduct political reviews of the candidates to exclude non-patriots and external forces from the elections. In addition, DCs should also be the cradle for identifying, training and gathering patriotic political talents, especially young people who aspire to participate in politics and serve society. The central government, the HKSAR government, and patriotic groups should strengthen coordination and cooperation in this regard.

Sixth, DCs need to assist the government and patriotic forces to broaden their mass base and enhance their mass mobilization capabilities. Whether before or since reunification, one of the obvious shortcomings of Hong Kong’s governance is that the government lacks a strong mass base and top-down mass mobilization capabilities. In future governance, and with the central government’s assistance, the HKSAR government should request and help DCs integrate many local organizations in the districts. Of course, the government can also promote the establishment of new local organizations in response to governance needs. If the government can coordinate and mobilize local organizations and residents through DCs, the resources that the government can deploy in the process of governance and crisis management will substantially increase.

Seventh, the composition of DCs needs to achieve balanced participation. In the Basic Law, the basic principle for constructing the political system and electoral system is “balanced participation”. Currently, “balanced participation” refers to the “balanced participation” of different components of patriotic forces. In the past, when there were still appointed seats in DCs, community leaders who donated money and efforts in the districts but were averse to electoral politics still had the opportunity to join DCs. After the appointed seats were completely abolished to appease the opposition, many of those who could contribute to the districts were not able to join DCs and thus lost their enthusiasm for serving the districts. To achieve “balanced participation” in the new DCs, it is advisable to use a hybrid approach in their formation. A portion of DC seats can be reserved for direct elections so that those who have close ties with local residents can become district councilors. Some important social organizations in the districts should be allowed to elect their representatives to DCs. Influential community leaders who can contribute to the districts and can mobilize the masses can be appointed by the government to DCs. A DC system thus constituted will not only increase and mobilize local resources more effectively but will also enjoy more support from residents.

Lastly, the reformed DCs should be given more important roles outside the districts. In the future, representative of district councilors should be allowed to serve as members of the Election Committee and members of the Legislative Council, thereby expanding the representativeness of these two bodies and the chief executive. Doing so will also help strengthen the connection between the DCs, LegCo and the government as well as establish a ladder of success for patriotic political talents from DCs to LegCo, the government and national-level institutions.

All in all, the reform of DCs is an important link in the reform and improvement of the entire governance system of the HKSAR. The completion of DC reform is likely to bring the governance of Hong Kong to a new stage of progress.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.