If Hong Kong leaders were trying to avoid controversy ahead of the District Council election, banning Joshua Wong was maybe not the way to go about it.
The exclusion of the 23-year-old activist poll became a global news story – to the doubtless bemusement of anyone actually familiar with district councils.
They are elected bodies, yes, but they don’t perform any meaningful governance. They are a branch of the Home Affairs Bureau with no power to make decisions, pass laws or raise revenue, and no income other than government grants.
The district councils were created as a bridge between the unelected government and the governed, and that is pretty much their role today.
Today the councils are dominated by the DAB and other pro-government parties including the rural umbrella body Heung Yee Kuk.
The Joshua Wong kerfuffle shows that, amid the worst political violence in 50 years, even the once-sedate District Council has become a political battleground.
With government support plumbing new depths over its inept handling of the protests, democrat forces are expected to perform strongly.
A hill to climb for democrats
But they have a hill to climb. Of the current 458 members in 18 District Councils, 327 are pro-government.
The gap is even more pronounced in the Islands District Council, where 16 out of 18 members are pro-government.
The Islands numbers are further distorted by the presence of eight ex officio members – rural committee chiefs who are automatically appointed. Our humble local body accounts for almost a third of the total number of ex officio councillors.
Though their influence has dimmed in the rest of the city they remain quite influential in the Islands council.
Case in point was the flap over the possible addition of an extra elected council seat.
Currently the Lantau electorate covers all of Lantau south and west of Tung Chung, including Shek Kwu Chau and the Sokos. It’s the largest electoral district of any kind in Hong Kong.
Many if not most elected council members agree it should be split in two because of its physical size.
But Amy Yung, the Civic Party representative, complained that the current Islands chairman, Chow Yuk-tong, an ex officio appointee from Lamma, merely consulted with fellow rural chieftains in deciding not to add a new seat.
In a statement to the council in February 2018, she pointed out that while the rural appointees may not feel any impact, any decision made on a new electorate could have “far-reaching” consequences for elected members.
While the number of seats remains the same, there has been a slight restructuring for the 2019 poll; the seat of Yat Tung South has been abolished and replaced by Mun Yat.
From taxis to trash
For all their limitations, the district councils are important in several ways.
First, as a sounding board for the government. Notoriously, Carrie Lam did not test her unpopular extradition bill at any district council. Her government did put the Lantau Tomorrow Vision to a vote, however.
Second, it’s the only place where local issues are raised and dealt with. Concerns are aired and government bureaucrats are grilled on problems from taxis to trash.
Third, they are a handy source of information. The mostly bilingual pages of the Islands District Council provide records of council meetings as well as standing committees on topics such as Traffic and Transport and Tourism Agriculture Fisheries and Environmental Hygiene. The site has plenty of government papers on the nitty gritty of local services.
Fourth, the councils have an influence on the city’s politics beyond their regular remit of streetlights and bus services.
Between them the 479 members will get to choose 60 members of the chief executive election committee. One of the councillors also has the chance to be elected to a Legco ‘super-seat.’
So, in this impassioned political season, there are plenty of reasons for you to get along to the polling booth on November 24.