They swept last year’s district council polls. That victory glow has since faded-HK’s opposition and its municipal-level struggles

25-Nov-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:51 AM Print This Post

It was just a year ago when Hong Kong’s opposition candidates swept aside their pro-establishment rivals in a political tsunami, scoring a massive victory in the district council elections.

Fresh off winning 392 of 452 seats, the newly minted pan-democratic councillors had hoped they could push for results in both political and social spheres, but the glow of their triumph has since faded discussions with officials have usually ended in walkouts and disputes.

Since January, there have been 89 instances of government representatives walking out of regular council meetings, according to a count by 18 District Councils Liaison, a group formed by opposition councillors.

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Pro-establishment district councillors argued their rivals only had themselves to blame for their confrontational ways towards city officials, ranging from top ministers to the police chief and home affairs officers.

Home affairs officials mainly cited the District Council Ordinance, which stipulates that a district council is tasked to advise the government on “matters affecting the well-being of the people in the district”, saying that they were not obligated to discuss matters unrelated to their own area.

This year, some 50 elected opposition councillors 13 per cent of the bloc have been arrested over offences such as police obstruction, illegal assembly or misconduct in public office, according to a count by the Post.

The latest were Yuen Long’s Henry Wong Pak-yu and Kowloon City’s Timothy Lee Hin-long, who were arrested on Sunday on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud in relation to expense claims for the now-postponed Legislative Council elections.

‘Changing’ rules of the game

The pro-establishment camp also said their opponents failed to understand the mission of district councils, which are advisory bodies in the communities, not political forums to debate citywide matters.

Political analysts said that as Beijing remained tough on Hong Kong’s opposition camp, there was little room for officials and the unruly district councillors of the bloc to reconcile differences.

“The mainstream, traditional pan-democratic parties were also influenced by their colleagues and online media, and became more radicalised,” said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University.

According to district council chairmen who talked to the Post, since the beginning of the term, political topics or sensitive issues were off-limits at discussions, with taboo subjects ranging from the anti-government protests and national security law, to the annual June Fourth vigil and the controversial Lantau Tomorrow reclamation project.

“District officers would say such an item falls outside the functions of a district council,” Sumly Chan Yuen-sum, chair of Tsuen Wan District Council, said. “Most of the time they will walk out of the meeting.”

A district councillor of more than 30 years, Chan said the rules of the game had changed starkly since the new term began.

“I still remember during the ‘umbrella movement’ in 2014, pro-establishment councillors were allowed to discuss items such as how it affected traffic for some Tsuen Wan residents,” he recalled.

“But this year, when we proposed discussing the violence used by the police force in anti-government movements, we were banned. That was not reasonable.”

Sha Tin councillor Raymond Li Chi-wang also said some opposition councillors were aghast when the government’s red line was often extended, from blocking discussions of protest-linked issues to other livelihood matters.

He recalled a meeting in which officials walked out when the Mandatory Provident Fund was brought up. The MPF is a compulsory pension scheme with a controversial offsetting mechanism allowing employers to dip into the accounts of workers to cover long-service and severance payments.

“They say we don’t have a role in it because it is not a district issue but one related to the whole of Hong Kong. But how are Sha Tin residents not affected?” Li said.

In most of these circumstances, opposition district councillors continued the discussions without secretariat support. Sometimes, they claimed, meetings unrecognised by officials were held in the corridors of government offices, with entry to dedicated conference rooms refused.

In response to an inquiry from the Post, a spokesman for the Home Affairs Department said government officials would not participate in discussions and no secretarial services could be provided if the issues were considered inconsistent with the District Council Ordinance.

Hong Kong’s opposition camp scored a landslide victory in the district council elections after nearly six months of anti-government protests last year. Many winners of the polls were first-time candidates. The newcomers, including students, ordinary office workers and professionals in their 20s, managed to defeat seasoned pro-establishment councillors, including veterans who had served for decades.

The relationship between opposition councillors and the government turned irretrievably sour after police in March arrested the chairwoman of the Central and Western District Council, Cheng Lai-king, under the colonial-era offence of sedition over an online post criticising an officer who shot a journalist.

The camp believed her arrest was related to her confrontational attitude towards police when chairing council meetings. In one held in January and attended by Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung, Cheng grilled him over alleged police brutality and evicted a plainclothes officer who refused to show his warrant card.

At the meeting, Tang had rejected calls for the force to apologise for its alleged brutality during the social unrest, saying it was “rioters” who needed to say sorry for the harm they caused the city.

For the pro-government camp, which has dominated the district councils since local elections were put in place in 1982, the past year has meant adapting to a new role as the minority monitoring the performance of opposition colleagues with newly formed pressure groups.

Nicole Lau Pui-yuk, a Sham Shui Po councillor from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), founded District Council Observers earlier in the year with other colleagues from major pro-establishment parties. She repeatedly slammed opposition councillors for blocking livelihood policies for political gain.

In Lau’s district, where she is one of only two pro-establishment members on the 25-member council, she said her proposal to discuss initiatives encouraging residents to take coronavirus tests was blocked from being raised in a meeting.

“This is something beneficial to all residents regardless of their political affiliations. But the opposition just seized every chance to smear the government,” she said.

Communication channels or battlefields?

At a press conference on Monday, representatives of the opposition’s 18 District Councils Liaison reported on the performance of their councillors in curbing the Covid-19 outbreak in communities. They said a total of HK$37 million in funding was allocated to 17 districts controlled by the opposition to purchase 10 million face masks and 340,000 units of hand sanitiser for residents.

But their efforts were often obstructed by the authorities, who deliberately withheld some of the Covid-19 funding applications, according to Choy Chak-hung, Kwun Tong District Council chair.

Democratic Party vice-chair Lo Kin-hei, who leads the Southern District Council, expected political suppression on district councillors to become even more severe under the sweeping national security law and Beijing’s recent resolution that led to the immediate disqualifications of lawmakers, which also resulted in the mass resignation of the rest of the Legislative Council’s pan-democrats.

Pro-establishment heavyweight Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, had warned that the red line used to unseat the four opposition lawmakers should also apply to district councillors.

“I guess we will continue to test the administration’s limits. We will not avoid them, and see how they respond to livelihood issues,” he said.

Chung Kam-lun, the 18 District Councils Liaison convenor, who is also chair of Sai Kung District Council, said his opposition colleagues had mentally prepared for a hard fight against what he called escalating suppression by the authorities.

“District councils remain the last battle front of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy force after legislators resigned en masse,” he added.

But Kwun Tong district councillor Frankie Ngan Man-yu, a DAB member, said the pan-democrats must understand that district councils were meant to be communication channels between residents and the government, not political battlefields.

“Councillors must not refuse to communicate with officials, yet opposition councillors had boycotted meetings with the financial secretary, the chief secretary and the home affairs secretary,” he said.


Category: Hong Kong

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