Reforming district-level governance

October 27, 2021 09:38
Photo: RTHK/HK government

Much has been said – perhaps too much – on the state of Hong Kong politics subsequent to the series of reforms rolled out last and this year.

A less investigated question, perhaps, concerns the prospects of district-level governance – i.e. the structures determining the day-to-day, municipal affairs that bear a more direct and substantial impact on a vast majority of Hong Kongers – than the “high politics” that rages on in the Legislative Council (and beyond).

District-level governance has not always been a prominent feature of Hong Kong’s illustrious and complex political institutions. The colonial administration had largely counted upon the support from civilian-led associations – such as the Kaifong associations – and bureaucracy-overseen cooptation/coordination agencies – as a means of enacting “district-level” support and policies, till the conclusion of World War II.

By the 1960s, however, the colonial administration had found the civilian-led associations to be lacking in representative and efficiency. As such, in a drastic overhaul it established the first local administrative units and structures through “district offices” – comprising civil servants (often imported from Britain) appointed to serve as liaison officers mediating between Government House and the public at large.

Regions in Hong Kong and Kowloon were divided into 74 districts, each comprising roughly 40-50,000 individuals, with area committees of twenty members appointed by city district officers. These committees were in turn overseen and led by a LegCo member. This was subsequently followed by the introduction of district advisoy boards in the New Territories, with members appointed to advise on local and district affairs, as well as engaging in community-building on the part of the government.

A series of reforms implemented in the 1980s and 1990s saw membership of these boards progressively relaxed, with greater powers devolved to them (complementary to, perhaps, the democratisation initiated in the dying days of the colonial era). The overarching objectives were two-fold: to strengthen coordination of government activities in consultation with and involvement of local citizens, as well as to prepare the Hong Kong public for enhanced enfranchisement and eventual suffrage rights under the touted shifts towards democratisation.

Yet since the handover, the intransigent, then vitriolic, politics on display in the Legislative Council has also found resonance in the District Council – especially in the aftermath of the abolition of the Municipal Council (which had previously served as an intermediary between the city-wide legislature and the district-based legislatures). Intransigence, caused first by obstinacy and inertia amongst individuals elected in largely uncontested elections, then by the stalemate and acrimony characterising the Establishment-Democrat dynamics post-2014, has left the district councils largely dysfunctional – even prior to the waves of disqualification and resignation earlier this year.

Hong Kong’s District Council is in need of a serious overhaul and radical reform. Such reforms must and should not place at their forefront the objective of “political security” – which has been all but established under the National Security Law and then. Nor should these reforms seek to serve as merely window-dressing for rent-seeking and pork barrel politics. We need reforms that place, once and for all, competent, efficacious, and expedient governance at the core of district-level politics.

A shift to an appointment-based system may not be all that bad an idea, provided that the primary operative and selection metrics are ones centered around experience, devotion, and knowledge of the most pressing needs and concerns within the respective ward. Additionally, there is the case to be made that the appointed must be capable of engaging with and speaking to a wide range of citizens – not just those who happen to, or in fact do, support the establishment. Political communication is a hurdle where many have slipped previously – it behooves us to identify, find, and groom individuals who genuinely care for the city.

Youth involvement and participation are hence vital – we need to create opportunities and room for our younger generations to comfortably and capably voice their concerns and needs, as opposed to sidelining them in favour of those whose words and views echo those in the zeitgeist. At the core of Beijing’s reforms for Hong Kong lies the noble vision and hope that we can leave the politicking and quibbling behind us, and focus on policymaking where it truly matters. It’s high time that district councils took this mantra to heart, as opposed to paying merely lip service to it.

I’ll be exploring concrete solutions through which we can reform district-level governance in the future – for now, however, let us hope that the times are kind to us all, and that positive change is indeed on the way.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review