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Votes and quotes amid altered landscape

Hong Kong, 15 November 2023: “A week is a long time in politics.” The late Harold Wilson’s quote, made during one of the UK’s seemingly never-ending crises in the 1960s, perfectly captures the fluctuating fortunes of those in office, including the man himself. A Labour Party titan and social reformer, he served two terms as Prime Minister and won four of the five general elections he contested, more than any other post-war British leader of any party.

Using Wilson’s yardstick, four years in politics is an eternity, a view borne out by looking ahead to Hong Kong’s District Council election on 10 December. Every candidate has been rigorously vetted. Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs Alice Mak spells it out: “It [the poll] lacks one colour that destabilises Hong Kong and the rest of China. It is not a colour favourable to Hong Kong and to the country.” Yes, Alice, we hear you.

How did we reach this stage? Rewind to the last District Council election – held in November 2019 at the height of our city’s civil unrest – which saw a record high voter turnout of 71% and a landslide for the pan-democrats. Even beleaguered Chief Executive Carrie Lam had to concede “the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation”.

Carrie did not have to worry. Soon after, Beijing mandated a new system of “patriots running Hong Kong” and our city’s political landscape was transformed. The Legislative Council underwent a major revamp, with the number of directly elected lawmakers reduced and all candidates having to be endorsed by a pro-Beijing vetting panel. As a consequence, 89 of the 90 seats are now filled by pro-establishment lawmakers.

Relations between the District Councils and government, meanwhile, quickly soured. More than half the directly elected councillors quit amid a new law requiring them to swear allegiance to the city and vow to uphold the Basic Law. This has put some councils back in the hands of pro-establishment figures while others barely have enough members to function. Wong Tai Sin was left with just three councillors, ditto Central & Western district. By-elections were not considered.

It has fallen to Carrie’s successor, John Lee, to implement an overhaul of our lowest-level municipal bodies. In championing his revamp, he insists District Councils should be “depoliticised”, arguing: “It is the attempt to make Hong Kong independent and an attempt to cause disaster to Hong Kong society as a whole that we need to prevent.”

The new-look councils will have 470 seats in total. Of these, 176 are chosen by members of three district-level committees stacked with pro-establishment figures, 179 are appointed by the Chief Executive and 27 are ex-officio seats. This leaves 88 to be directly elected by the public, but simply becoming a candidate has proven impossible for non-establishment figures, none of whom has secured enough nominations from the district-level committees. How tough is it? Even some pro-establishment hopefuls are excluded.

Just reaching out to the committee members is hard enough, with the authorities refusing to disclose their contact details. The Home Affairs Department would only forward nomination requests to the committees while the Electoral Affairs Commission, citing “privacy of personal data”, claims it is not authorised to make such information available to the public. John Lee has dismissed concerns over this, however, observing that those struggling to be endorsed should “look into why they have problems”. Third Side party leader Tik Chi-yuen – the sole non-establishment lawmaker in LegCo – predictably takes a different view, suggesting that evaluating candidates should be the duty of voters, not nominators.

All of which has caused serial litigant and Democratic Party “permanent member” Kwok Cheuk-kin to file a judicial challenge in the High Court, arguing the nomination process violates the Basic Law. Secretary for Justice Paul Lam SC, named as an interested party in the proceedings, points out the government has no legal obligation even to form District Councils.

As you might guess by now, Hong Kong is hardly gripped by election fever and, already, some pro-establishment figures are playing down expectations. Executive Council Convener Regina Ip says high voter turnout should not be expected, but nor should it define the credibility of the exercise. Even so, those candidates who have navigated the nomination process are taking it seriously. The Liberal Party members canvassing near my office last week were bright, enthusiastic and open to discussion when I stopped to chat with them. Will I vote? Absolutely. As long as there is a choice, I will exercise my democratic right.

Away from the ballot box, many eyes are on Financial Secretary Paul Chan as he attends this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco. John Lee is backing him to tell “true stories” about Hong Kong’s strength and stability while outlining efforts to drive economic growth. Indeed, Chan’s presence at the gathering is a timely reminder that, no matter who is elected to the District Councils, LegCo or even the Chief Executive’s role, our city’s fortunes will always be dominated by economic concerns.

“Whichever party is in office, the Treasury is in power.” Who said that? None other than our old friend – and election veteran – Harold Wilson.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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