The District Councils (Amendment) Bill 2023
MR CHAN CHUN-YING:
Deputy President, I speak in support of the District Councils (Amendment) Bill 2023 (“the Bill”).
Over the years, the District Councils (“DCs”) and the Government had served the public in accordance with the Basic Law and based on the principle of mutual respect. However, things changed thoroughly after the sixth-term DC election. In 2019, those who attempted to destabilize Hong Kong took advantage of the election to become DC members, turning DCs into a stage for promoting their own political ideologies and endangering national security. They neglected local residents’ livelihood, obstructed the administration of the Government, and frequently acted with no regard for the functions of DCs, deviating from their original role and positioning. This has seriously undermined community harmony and hindered district development.
Following the implementation of the National Security Law (“NSL”) and the oath-taking requirements for public officers, many DC members were disqualified for invalid oaths or resigned with various excuses. As a result, 333 of the 479 seats are vacant, with some DCs left with only two or three members, as some colleagues have just mentioned. This has significantly undermined the quality of district services. This sorry state of affairs is plainly unacceptable and clearly indicates that the existing system is imbalanced and the electoral system is beset with obvious loopholes and flaws. The current term of DCs will expire at the end of this year. It is necessary to plug all the loopholes and rectify all the issues before the next ordinary election, with a view to putting DCs back on the right track.
Let us take a look back at the history of DCs. The District Councils Bill was passed by the Legislative Council (“LegCo”) in 1999 to provide for the establishment, composition and functions of DCs as well as the relevant election procedures. Since then, the SAR Government has conducted some reviews on the role and functions of DCs, but their positioning as district advisory and service organizations and not organs of political power has remained unchanged over the years.
In recent years, some DC members and Chairmen deliberately misinterpreted the nature, role and functions of DCs by equating them with local assemblies in western countries. They claimed to have the right to question, monitor and exercise checks and balances on the Government, and considered that they enjoyed independent administrative, financial and decision-making powers. They upset the order of DCs, threatened to overturn approvals granted to projects by their predecessors, raised issues outside the scope of their powers, used district facilities arbitrarily, and promoted personal political ideologies. Following the present legislative exercise, DCs will perform nine functions which are focused on the advisory and service aspects. This clearly and precisely reflects their role in complementing the Government by assisting it in keeping its finger on the pulse of the community and planning district services more effectively, thereby fostering social cohesion.
In the past, issues outside the terms of reference of DCs were often proposed for discussion at full council meetings, such as motions opposing the enactment of NSL and establishing a special committee to examine the Police’s enforcement and operation. The amendments to the District Councils Ordinance designate the District Officer (“DO”) of a district as the DC Chairman of the district and redefine the powers of Chairmen. These include requiring DC members to collect and reflect the views of local residents in respect of an issue specified by them, making standing orders for meetings, and setting up a specified committee and appointing a member of the DC as the chairman of the committee. These arrangements ensure that the Government has control over consultation on district affairs, thus meeting the guiding principles for the proposals on improving district governance and fully manifesting executive-led governance.
As the head of each District Office and the Government’s most senior official in each district, DO will have a heavier workload and greater responsibilities after assuming the role of DC Chairman in the future. However, this significant post is currently pitched at the level of Administrative Officer Staff Grade C (D2). In the Subcommittee to Study the Proposals for Improving District Governance and Related Matters, I suggested that the Administration actively consider upgrading the rank of DO and conferring more powers on them to facilitate their role in coordinating the work of various government departments at the district level, with a view to improving district governance. DOs who are competent at the relevant duties will make up a rich talent pool for other Policy Bureaux in the future.
Regarding the composition of DCs, the Bill restores the appointment system. In fact, there were already appointed seats in the first term of DCs after Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. Appointed members utilized their work background, professional knowledge and experience to serve the community. This system had worked well until its abolition in 2015. With the restoration of the appointment system, the Government can appoint capable persons of different professions and experiences to participate in district administration, having regard to the situation and actual development needs of each District Appointed members serve an entire District and work for its overall interests. I believe this will overcome silos of constituency interests, enhance the quality of policy discussions and debates in DCs, and enable capable individuals who do not wish to participate in elections to serve in DCs.
As DCs are an important component of the political structure and primary-level governance structure in Hong Kong, being patriotic and safeguarding national security are the basic requirements for DC members. In 2019, anti-China disruptors became DC members, and used the DC platform to advocate “Hong Kong independence”. During meetings, they sang a song which promoted “Hong Kong independence” and made insulting remarks about our country and nation. The present legislative exercise introduces an eligibility review mechanism whereby anyone who betrays Hong Kong’s interests, breaches national security, does not bear allegiance to the SAR or does not sincerely uphold the Basic Law is not eligible to become a DC member. This serves as an institutional safeguard to prevent anti-China disruptors from infiltrating DCs, thus aligning with the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong” and safeguarding national security.
Prior to the introduction of the amendments, the mechanism was ineffective in deterring DC members from engaging in acts that were unbecoming of their position or tarnished the reputation of DCs. Moreover, it was not possible to conduct investigations into, or punish them for, their performance or misconduct. The Bill introduces a performance monitoring mechanism which allows members of the public to continuously monitor the performance of DC members during their terms of office. In future, if a DC member’s behaviour falls short of the public expectation, such as repeated absence from meetings, disrupting the order of meetings, or disorderly conduct, an investigation can be immediately initiated according to the procedures, and DC members who are not committed to their work or do not assist members of the public can be punished. I believe this will strengthen the accountability of DC members.
After the announcement of the proposals on improving district governance, some other Members and I explained the proposals to members of the public at street counters. Many kaifongs indicated that they had a very simple request. They hoped DC members would assist them with livelihood matters and help them live a happier life. After the passage of the Bill, there will be a new term of DCs consisting of 470 members who are patriotic and have an affection for Hong Kong and genuinely commit themselves to serving the public. I believe that, together with Care Teams and “the three district committees”, they will assist the Government in keeping its finger on the pulse of the community and providing more effective and targeted district services, thus enhancing district governance.
As a member of the Bills Committee on the Bill, I have participated in the entire process of policy discussions and clause-by-clause examination of the Bill. During the process, members have expressed many views and suggestions, and the Administration has given serious consideration to the amendments suggested by members as well as the Legal Service Division of LegCo, and taken our constructive advice on board. As a result, 28 amendments have been made.
Deputy President, I support the passage of the Bill and all the amendments proposed by the Government. However, this is only the first step, and certainly the most crucial step, to improve district governance. Next, the authorities should take on the subsequent work such as preparing for the election at the end of this year, reviewing the eligibility of candidates, appointing suitable members to DCs, and monitoring the performance of DC members, thereby enabling the public to feel that DCs have reverted to its original purpose of serving the community.
I so submit.