The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s revamped electoral system can be a perfect case study for anyone interested in public administration and democratic systems. In the last decade, the SAR’s Legislative Council was basically dysfunctional. Filibustering was the order of the day, blocking all the good intentions of the SAR government across a wide range of public services to make people’s lives better.
The legislature chamber at times seemed like a classroom taken over by a bunch of rambunctious children throwing things at each other or wrestling on the floor. The reality was even worse as some of the legislators were later found to be proxies of foreign powers supporting Hong Kong independence and laam chau (burn together) and conspired with foreign powers to mount a “color revolution”, creating the worst political crisis and social unrest ever in Hong Kong in 2019. This resulted in over 10,000 rioters arrested, causing billions of dollars of damages and in economic losses.
Despite the constant roiling of these highly disruptive challenges, the SAR government was unable to come up with any effective countermeasures. The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, the Electoral Affairs Commission and the Law Reform Commission, each vested with respective responsibilities concerning elective offices under constitutional law, seemed paralyzed in the face of the opposition camp’s increasingly disruptive behavior. It was left to some Chinese mainland scholars and researchers to come up with systemic reform, leading to a resolution of the National People’s Congress for a revamped electoral system.
It would seem a huge waste of talent and resources if the committee (Election Committee) met only twice in five years for the two elections and remained dormant the rest of the time. Consideration should be given to maximizing the usefulness of this valuable asset
Look closely at the 1,500 newly elected members of the Election Committee, when compared with the 1,200 members of the previous committee, and it is easy to see they are more experienced, and more representative of the diverse sectors and strata of society. Some come from the grassroots and include quite a few aspiring young people. We can now be sure that no particular sectoral interest will be overlooked in future elections.
There is criticism that the voter base has shrunk from 246,440 in the last election in 2016 to just 8,000 eligible voters. It should be pointed out that many individual voters have been replaced with corporate voters, the latter representing the views of the organizations, each with thousands of members. With an additional 300 seats covering previously underrepresented sectors of the society, and the overall turnout of the Election Committee’s subsector ordinary elections being a record near-90 percent, the committee is clearly more representative than before.
It is fair to say that there is no other institution in Hong Kong more representative than the 1,500-member Election Committee. Therefore, it is only right that it should be given the responsibility to elect 40 members of the new Legislative Council, in addition to its principal responsibility of selecting the chief executive.
However, it would seem a huge waste of talent and resources if the committee met only twice in five years for the two elections and remained dormant the rest of the time. Consideration should be given to maximizing the usefulness of this valuable asset.
One way is for the Election Committee to undertake the duties comparable to that of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in the SAR. In China’s political system, every city has its own regional CPPCC. Its main functions are advisory to the regional government as well as to unite the people in the region. The Election Committee is ideally suited to perform this role, which is analogous to the advisory nature of the upper house of the British Parliament. It should be emphasized that the committee must not become another power center, but limit itself to an advisory role for the government, and various legislative and judicial organs.
In practice, similar to the functions of the CPPCC, the Election Committee can hold annual meetings to debate the chief executive’s policy address, the annual government budget and other major or constitutional issues. It also wouldn’t hurt to introduce a system for the chief executive to hold regular, or ad hoc, consultative meetings with the different specialist elements of the committee as the need arises. The various bureaus can also canvass the views of the committee members on any major issues of concern.
Indeed, the revamped system has catered for this possibility. In the newly amended Annex I of the Basic Law, it stipulates that the committee will be led by a chief convener holding an “office of state leadership” who will be responsible for convening meetings when necessary and handling “relevant matters”. The chief convener is also responsible for assigning “a number of conveners” for each of the five sectors of the Election Committee, thus establishing a perfect consultative structure. Here are a few ideas how this can materialize:
First, it is gratifying to note that a number of newly elected members of the Election Committee, who have taken their seats without contest, participated recently in a citywide outreach campaign, to explain to the public the revamped election system as well as to collect public feedback to improve governance. This signals a commitment of the committee members to stay close to the people and put their ears to the ground. This they should continue to do.
Second, the Election Committee can play an important role in the SAR government’s advisory committee system. At present, there are over 500 advisory and statutory bodies in the SAR government. Perhaps there should be a comprehensive review of these advisory bodies to streamline their functions and see how they can merge with the members of the different sectors of the Election Committee. One holdover from the colonial era is that many government decisions have to go through a tedious public consultation process with these bodies. The beauty of the reform is that it can shorten the time of the public consultation process of the government by simply consulting the Election Committee. The committee can also establish a close relationship with the think tanks of the society, such as Our Hong Kong Foundation, to ensure speedy and quality feedback to the think tanks’ research and recommendations.
Third, the committee can serve as an additional communication network for the SAR government. In recent years, one of the key social problems is that most SAR government publicity campaigns couldn’t keep up with the opposition’s sleek and bold campaigns. As the latter campaigns are not bound by integrity, they succeeded easily in feeding the public with false and subversive reports through their district contacts, the media and social media, often pandering to people’s fears and concerns without providing realistic solutions. In future, the committee can assist in disseminating the correct government information through the widespread network of its 1,500 members, where everyone would have at least one social media account to connect with their constituents.
Finally, the committee should also monitor the performance of the 40 members it sent to LegCo through regular dialogue. It must hold them accountable for their actions. For example, each of these 40 LegCo members should submit their respective work reports to the committee every six months.
Perhaps once the chief convener of the committee has been appointed by the central government, likely to be either Tung Chee-hwa or Leung Chun-ying, a full meeting of the Election Committee can be convened to discuss the possibilities of additional responsibilities that can be taken up by the committee, to reinforce its role as the guardian in the implementation of the “one country, two systems” policy.
Given time for the revamped election system to work, there is little doubt that our distinctive democracy with Hong Kong characteristics will prove to be far more effective in serving the people than the one-person-one-vote practice of Western democracies. In our misguided pursuit of the conventional Western democratic model, our city was thrown into chaos in the last decade, our usual government efficiency suffered, and our economic prosperity was adversely impacted. The new electoral system will turn a new page in allowing us to revert to our former social stability and economic prosperity.
The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space, a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, and a former deputy commissioner of the ICAC.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.