Explainer: Hong Kong’s first ‘patriots-only’ District Council race

The District Council elections in 2019. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

The original version of this report was written by James Lee and published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on November 11, 2023. The following edited version has been published on Global Voices as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Hong Kong is less than a month away from its first District Council elections since authorities introduced drastic changes to the electoral procedures — slashing the number of seats chosen by the public to around 20 percent, with the rest selected by the city’s leader, government-appointed committees and officials.

Plans to overhaul the elections were unveiled in May 2023 to ensure only “patriots” were elected, following a pro-democracy landslide at the 2019 polls in the wake of mass pro-democracy protests. That election saw a record-high turnout of 71.2 percent, with some 2.94 million voters casting their ballots, and democrats took close to 400 of the 452 seats under the first-past-the-post system, securing control of 17 out of 18 councils.

Why was the District Council race overhauled?

The changes for the December 10 poll were as drastic as they were predictable. The electoral overhaul will ensure only “patriots” can govern Hong Kong, a principle laid down by Beijing when the electoral system for the Legislative Council was overhauled in 2021, sharply cutting the number of democratically elected seats.

In 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping mandated a “patriots-only” political system for the city that saw the number of directly elected lawmakers sharply reduced.

It then fell on current Chief Executive John Lee to extend the overhaul to the district councils. As he announced the revamp this May, he described the councils as consultative bodies and not organs of political power and said they should be “depoliticised.”

“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,” Lee said.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”

Though small factions of the “leaderless” protests called for independence for the city, it was never a demand of the movement.

Under the overhaul, the councils will have the fewest directly elected seats — 88 out of 470 — and the most appointees since they were introduced in 1982 under British colonial rule when more than a quarter of the seats were democratically contested.

Lee claimed the colonial government had attempted to prolong its political influence over Hong Kong by increasing the number of democratically elected seats to the legislature and to the district councils ahead of the 1997 handover.

New powers given to government committees

The government had received 399 nominations from election hopefuls by the deadline on October 30, according to the Registration and Electoral Office.

Among the candidates, 228 are running for 176 District Committee constituency seats, where the electorate consists of some 2,500 members of three district-level committees — the Area Committees, District Fight Crime Committees, and District Fire Safety Committees. These are stacked with pro-establishment figures.

A total of 171 candidates will compete for 88 seats in geographical constituencies — the democratically-elected seats. There will be seats for each of the 44 constituencies — and they will be chosen by 4.3 million registered voters. Under the overhauled system, the boundaries have been redrawn to reduce the constituencies to 44.

The city’s chief executive will appoint 179 councillors — a system that was previously abolished in 2016. The 27 ex-officio seats will remain.

Even in the 88 “directly”-elected seats, securing nominations was an uphill battle for non-establishment would-be candidates. They had to secure at least three nominations from each of the area, crime, and fire safety committees.

According to reports from local media outlets, including  HK01 and InMedia, pro-establishment figures who lost in the 2019 District Council elections were later appointed to different area committees.

The 452 geographical constituencies were merged into 44 much larger ones by the government — a power that used to be solely held by the Electoral Affairs Commission, the city’s elections watchdog.

Why were the nomination rules controversial?

Just getting in contact with the committee members proved problematic for potential candidates when authorities refused to disclose the members’ contact details or even their names. Chief Executive Lee rejected criticism of the process, saying some would-be candidates were not endorsed because they had not gained the trust of the nominators.

By the October 30 deadline, all pro-democracy hopefuls — and even some from the pro-establishment camp — had failed to secure endorsements and were shut out of the race. They included six hopefuls from the Democratic Party and two from the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood.

Moderate party Third Side also failed to get enough nominations, while Roundtable, a pro-establishment group founded by entrepreneur and lawmaker Michael Tien, only secured enough nominations for one of its five hopefuls.

Tien said his party approached more than 240 committee members but still failed to secure nominations. It was even snubbed by Executive Council convenor Regina Ip, who had initially offered to nominate his members.

The controversy resulted in a judicial review being launched against the government, which Executive Councillor Ronny Tong had predicted could happen unless the government provided direct contact details for nominators.

The threshold for entering the race was “extremely high” under the overhauled system, said Tong, whose think tank Path of Democracy was only able to secure enough nominations for one member.

An HKFP analysis found that 75 percent of candidates in the direct election also sat on the nominating committees. Among the 171 candidates running for the 88 democratically-elected seats, 129 were members of the three committees responsible for deciding who could enter the race.

Ming Pao also reported that nominators had made multiple endorsements involving 18 district council candidates for Kowloon City, Tai Po, Tuen Mun, and Wan Chai, apparently contravening electoral regulations. In response, the Registration and Electoral Office said that all candidates had received valid nominations, but it did not address the issue of whether the multiple nominations were deemed invalid.

The District Council Eligibility Review Committee, chaired by the city’s number two official, Eric Chan, confirmed on Friday that all 399 election hopefuls had passed a patriotism assessment required under the Beijing-mandated system.

The eligibility review is an extension of the overhauled Legislative Council vetting mechanism, which saw candidates subject to checks by the police National Security Department, the city’s national security committee and a separate reviewing committee.

How was Hong Kong’s electoral overhaul viewed?

When veteran Hong Kong litigant Kwok Cheuk-kin launched his legal challenge against the nomination system for the “patriots-only” race, he asked the court to repeal the requirement for candidates to receive at least three nominations from government-appointed committees.

He cited Article 26 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that “Permanent residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall have the right to vote and the right to stand for election in accordance with law.”

Amid a decline in the number of registered voters, Regina Ip has said that while a high voter turnout should not be expected, it should not define the credibility of the exercise.

Source: Registration and Electoral Office • *Provisional figures

Despite the absence of any opposition, the head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Gary Chan, has said the election would be “more intense” than in years past.

The sharp drop in voters was seen as an indication that the public felt their votes would not have any real influence.

Democratic Party chairperson Lo Kin-hei told US government-funded news outlet Radio Free Asia in August that the decline in registered voters should be attributed to the emigration wave as well as the election overhaul, as it reduced the number of directly elected seats. Lo said in Cantonese:

For young people or the general public, the impact of casting a vote has significantly diminished. The extent to which I can influence lawmakers is so minuscule that it diminishes the desire to participate.

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