District Councils and their work
District Councils (DCs) were first established in Hong Kong in 1982. According to a government policy statement the aims were to promote community development while nurturing civic responsibility and sense of belonging. Although the DCs have always been criticised, there has not been any recent comprehensive review of their role or performance. Over time the government has actually referred fewer issues to them to deal with. In the third term (2008-2011) of the DCs 15,500 matters were referred to them and this fell to 14,700 in the fifth term (2016-2019). The government abolished the Urban Council in 1999 and it subsequently did not keep its promise of handing on some powers to the DCs [see our blog 2019 Hong Kong District Council elections].
While Hong Kong (HK) has experienced many changes over the years, it's not clear whether DCs have kept up. The ability of DC members to take part in public policy issues has become more important than ever with a raft of concerns directly impacting residents. Since the 1997 British handover the majority of DCs have been pro-Beijing loyalists. There are six DC members in the Legislative Council, and of the 1,200-member Election Committee for Chief Executive 117 are DCs.
Under the umbrella of The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG) a group of researchers (Governance and Constitutional Development Group) conducted research to gauge people's thoughts on the work of DCs. Their survey of 520 respondents aged 18-35 yrs old, plus 19 scholars, experts and current DC members may not be entirely representative of the broad HK population. Nevertheless, there are some interesting findings in their report released in September 2019:
75% thought they have a responsibility to monitor DCs
74.1% think that transparency of information from DCs is low
74% do not trust DCs
72.5% think there are few talented people in DCs
62.5% said they would like to be more involved in DC's decision-making
34.4% say that the DC's major function is to reflect residents' views to the government
33.3% believe that DCs' greatest potential value is as a symbol of the representation of public opinion
Reflecting the previously mentioned criticism of DCs, respondents rated their performance poorly:
On a 0-10 scale, on their role of advising the government on community matters DCs scored an average 4.72 rating
On a 0-10 scale, on promoting residents' participation in district affairs DCs scored an average 4.64 rating
Given the landslide victory by pro-democracy candidates in the November 2019 DC election, commentators have been quick to declare the poll a de facto referendum on the 2019 HK protests. It is likely, however, that many voters were already determined to bring about change in their respective DCs before the protests began. A number of contentious and costly community projects have raised people's ire, bringing matters of openness, transparency and accountability to the fore. [See our blog: Ending the Spending]
Many of the newly elected DCs, like Southern District Councillor Lo Kin-hei, are now formulating new ways to work in their DC, building momentum as they look forward to the 2020 Legislative Council election and 2022 Chief Executive election.
The research findings above were published in the HKFYG monthly magazine "Youth Hong Kong," September 2019, Vol. 11, No. 3., p.44
The original report titled "Strengthening the Role and Functions of District Councils"
Details in Chinese: https://yrc.hkfyg.org.hk/2019/09/05/yi045/