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Wither Hong Kong’s District Councils? FCC panelists divided over the future of the city’s local elections

At the FCC’s June 14th lunch discussion on the government’s reform plan for the District Councils, a panel of former and current district councillors remained divided over the future of the city’s elections.

Moderated by FCC President Lee Williamson, the panel consisted of Legislative Council member Joephy Chan, district councillors Christine Fong and Paul Zimmerman (who is retiring at the end of his term), and former district councillor Fred Li.

While both Zimmerman and Li opposed the reforms, Fong said that she is welcome to any changes. Chan maintained the strongest support for a District Council overhaul, claiming the proposals were “much needed” and that they put Hong Kong “back on track according to the Basic Law.”

Joephy Chan. Photo: FCC

Last month, Chief Executive John Lee announced the reform plan which would result in only 88 of the 470 District Council seats being directly elected, less than 20% of the total. Currently, the proportion of directly elected seats is around 90%. 

The new plan would also increase the number of government-appointed seats to 179, while 176 seats would be decided by indirect elections which require candidates to secure nominations from three committees and be screened for political loyalty and national security risks. 

Li, as a member of the District Board which preceded the District Councils, noted that the new reforms (and the Legislative Council reforms) were in direct response to 2019, but he mainly criticized the increase of government appointees. He described his past experience of working with appointees as “nonsense” and clarified that he was never an appointee himself when challenged by the panel. 

“This is like chopping off your ears or being blindfolded,” said Zimmerman, the strongest critic on the panel. He questioned the necessity of reforms given the existence of the National Security Law and the oaths that public figures must take before entering office. Zimmerman also faced questions from Chan regarding his own resignation and was accused of quitting too quickly without giving the government a chance for dialogue. 

Paul Zimmerman. Photo: FCC

“[I] will not be a flag for dramatic change,” Zimmerman said to defend himself. “[I] cannot pretend it’s a democratic system.”

Fong reminded the panel that the District Councils are meant to make residents’ lives better and have a duty to serve people. 

Christine Fong. Photo: FCC

In response to a question if there was any more room for democracy in Hong Kong, Chan claimed that direct elections don’t work due to their “loss of efficiency” and “political chaos.” She cited cases of filibustering in the 2015 District Council elections and emphasized that Hong Kong’s political system shouldn’t be judged by Western values. 

An attendee commented that filibustering exists on all sides of the spectrum, citing the various District Council walkouts staged by pro-establishment officials after the implementation of the Beijing-imposed National Security Law. 

Former FCC president and Director of HKU Journalism Keith Richburg asked about future voter turnout. The 2019 District Council elections had around a 70% voter turnout almost all in favor for the pro-democracy camp, but the 2021 Legislative Council elections had barely 30% of the city’s voters participate. 

Chan reiterated that voter turnout was not the sole indicator of a good election and compared local elections to elections in overseas cities like New York. 

Li opposed such a comparison and instead suggested Hong Kong compare itself to its own history. To him, not doing so would be like “putting our heads under sand.”

Fred Li. Photo: FCC

In a final question posed by Hong Kong Free Press, the panelists were asked if government appointees truly understand their role and the communities they serve, and what the voter turnout for the upcoming November elections might mean for Hong Kong. 

“Fantastic! Low turnout!” Zimmerman said with a chuckle. 

Chan mentioned that she collaborates with government appointees to do district work, and then criticised Western politicians for polarising people to vote with emotion. She also reiterated her earlier point that a high voter turnout doesn’t signify a good election or that the people care about their livelihood. To her, these circumstances mean that the voters care more about politics above all else. 

Sharing his final thoughts on the district council reforms, Li said, “We’ve lost checks and balances.”

Click here to watch the full panel discussion on YouTube:

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