Votes have been cast, and the ballots counted. Despite uncertainties over whether this year’s district council elections would take place, they went ahead on November 24 without incident, albeit under heavier security.
With anti-government protests into their sixth month, it was a politically charged set of elections, with pro-establishment candidates anxious about a backlash for supporting the extradition bill that triggered the protests. And indeed, pro-democracy candidates rode the wave of discontent to a landmark victory. The people have spoken.
Nevertheless, we should not forget the function of district councils: to counsel the government on local community affairs. There is no denying that district council elections are political, with district councillors accounting for 117 seats on the 1,200-seat Election Committee responsible for electing the city’s chief executive.
However, one must not lose sight of councillors’ fundamental responsibilities in dealing with matters affecting the welfare of their constituents.
District councils, known as district boards before 1997, are a relatively recent development in Hong Kong’s geopolitical landscape. With the direct election of all members (except some rural heads) only implemented in 1994, their significance as community welfare-centred institutions legitimised by universal suffrage should not be taken for granted or overlooked.
In the frontier days of the New Territories, district officers were one of the only links between the colonial government and local inhabitants. While Hong Kong is still a long way from being a Scandinavian-style welfare state, there was a time not so long ago when priority was accorded to effective administration of districts.
As chronicled in his memoir Myself a Mandarin, Austin Coates, a colonial civil servant who served as district officer and special magistrate of the Southern District of the New Territories in the early 1950s, said that “the town officials, from the central government departments, had inevitably a one-sided approach to their work”.
“To them,” he wrote, “it was Hong Kong’s industrial and residential development that mattered; villagers, to most of them, were mere yokels, and village interests were not worth serious consideration. My duty was to fight a rearguard action against urban encroachment, and to protect agriculture and village life, whether this was desirable and possible, in order that the country people should not suffer by too rapid social and economic changes.”
Although there were well-liked district officers, such as Coates, who carried out their duties with commendable levels of dedication and empathy, people had to play the hands they were dealt by the colonial civil service, and had no influence over who, if anyone, was responsible for their well-being.
Interestingly, district officers performed a wide array of executive and judicial functions, including on matters relating to the granting and use of crown land and hearing court cases that ranged from land disputes to family and matrimonial cases.
Aside from the post being the antithesis of the separation of powers doctrine, there was also real potential for conflict between a district officer’s duties as an administrator and adjudicator, and the best interests of local inhabitants.
On a practical level, a district officer’s numerous duties and responsibilities affected the prioritisation of community work. Indeed, Coates concluded his tenure as a district officer due to being burnt out.
Fortunately, district councils today provide dedicated platforms for dealing with community-level affairs by members who are elected to represent their constituents’ interests.
If the new councillors become complacent after the political statement made by their successful election, they should be reminded of the importance of their constituents’ welfare and the work that lies ahead.
Reflecting on his time doing “administrative work involving direct exposure to people”, Coates observed that, “In the [Hong Kong] Secretariat one could occasionally compliment oneself on having a done a good day’s work; in the district, never. All that sustained one’s confidence was the hope of rectifying tomorrow the mistakes made today.”
Communities across Hong Kong have expectations and needs. Councillors must not let them down.
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