Facilitating Community Participation in Hong Kong’s Governance
On 17 July 2004, the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation (HKDF), together with concerned citizens joined in a facilitated workshop to discuss how to improve governance in Hong Kong. The results of this workshop have been compiled into a record for future reference.
The implementation of 'Democracy' in a community is invariably accompanied by election, by members of the community, of their representatives in government. This is normally supplemented by more direct citizen involvement in various ways.
In Hong Kong, democratic representation is under discussion and is likely to remain inadequate for some time to come. The starting point for the meeting was to leave aside the current discussion of the franchise and look into the other aspects of implementing democracy in Hong Kong. Whilst the need for elections is considered to be an important determinant for democracy, the aim of the workshop was to determine what other factors contribute to it and see if these can be improved.
The workshop followed a structured approach whereby participants shared an understanding of the key determinants of democracy, to evaluate the effectiveness of consultation or community involvement processes and to form the basis for new ideas for improving any processes of community involvement complementary to the considerations of elections.
Many key determinants of democracy were identified and these are covered in more detail in Section 4. There are certain foundation pieces which Hong Kong in general possesses, such as the rule of law and freedom of speech.
One key determinant was full and equal participation and the workshop considered how to improve participation. The current processes of community involvement identified in Hong Kong were considered biased with public participation and stakeholder consultation controlled to ensure the outcome was as the Government would like.
Hong Kong does not have a culture of involvement in politics although the July 1 marches have demonstrated a civic awareness. March and protest have only limited use and ways of increasing meaningful participation before positions become entrenched are needed.
An understanding of democracy is required by the population alongside the ability to create wealth. Democracy takes account of community responsibility as well as the self interest that capitalism engenders. Using political parties to improve understanding of democracy was considered and a greater acceptance of political parties is required before this would be possible. It would be helped by an independent media which does not denigrate political parties.
Young people are interested but there is little opportunity to practice politics in a school or university environment. Student unions are conservative and school students are not encouraged to participate.
One of the key determinants for democracy was the formalisation of political parties and discussion focused on why formalisation of these was important and how to achieve it. Participants at the workshop considered that the party system should be strengthened and given credibility so that it becomes the conduit for the Governance process through developing policy. Ultimately, and if elected, the political party would carry out the policies itself.
At present, 'Business' does not perceive a need to get involved as they have the ear of Government through the General Chamber of Commerce. However, "Business" does need to be persuaded that funding political parties would be in their interests so that the cycle of lack of funding, lack of resources to develop policy and subsequent lack of interest in political parties can be broken. Formalisation of the political parties requires legislation to recognize them and to provide rules for funding.
2. Objectives of the meeting for Facilitating Community Participation in Hong Kong's Governance
3. Key Determinants of Democracy
Participants shared an understanding of the key determinants of democracy. A summary of the outcomes and discussion is given below.
Malta was given as an example. It had been a colony for 300 years until 1967. It is now independent and has a simple constitution with an Exco and a Legco. However, initial elections were violent and it took four rounds of elections to settle down (20 years). Now there is 90% participation and a strong sense of community responsibility.
4. Processes of Community Involvement
A number of community involvement processes in Hong Kong were identified. There are a lot of mechanisms to allow Government and people to interface but the mechanisms are not being used correctly. The general consensus was that they were there to provide input but were either not listened to or were controlled to ensure that the outcome was as the Government department promoting the consultation would like. However, Government departments do not talk to each other which compounded the feeling that lip service is paid to consultation. A lack of transparency was noted.
The problems with public sector reform were raised as an example. Public sector reform is progressing slowly as the structure of the civil service inhibits change. Government cannot persuade the administration to change as they do not have a mandate to do so. Professional managers are needed within government Administration. PlanD is trying to change and cited examples with the 2030 study and the opening up of the Town Planning Board.
The culture in Hong Kong does not encourage participation. The culture has roots in Confucianism that encouraged people to give deference only to the family. This has continued as both Colonial and Communist regimes support an attitude of self sufficiency. However, there is a tradition for the elderly and youth to volunteer and help with political campaigns but there is no long term commitment.
The system is breaking down and the final result is that people march and protest. However, this has only limited use. The July 1 marches show that Hong Kong is a civil society. Young people are starting to take interest.
The Government leaders are now saying that they will 'listen to the public'. However, there is no need for bureaux and departments to act if they do not wish to: there is no mandatory administrative system that requires it.
The Government is not elected and therefore they don't have to listen: they cannot be removed as a result. A Government that is voted in has to pay attention to public opinion to stay in power. They need an incentive to listen and that incentive is that power may be removed from them if they do not. Marching has made the Government listen because China is not pleased: they act to more minimize the bad effects rather than making changes. At present we have accountability by embarrassment.
In Hong Kong, only the Government can bring in legislation. The ultimate goal to consider is for political parties to compete for the top position to take the mandate to govern the country. The change must move at the right pace and mandates would initially look at bread and butter issues to win support moving towards universal suffrage. Formalisation of political parties will strengthen the process but we need to give political parties the space to develop. This requires education of democracy and social obligations
As the present government is not elected, it is not accountable to the people of Hong Kong and so does not appear to need to listen. Political parties provide the means by which people can take part in discussion on the way they wish Hong Kong to be governed. The political parties can express these views in terms of policy. Once elected, the political party would rule through the mandate given to them by those who elected them. If they do not follow the policies, or the policies do not work, then they will be replaced by another party in the next election.
Political parties in Hong Kong can be voted out but they do not run Hong Kong. In the event that the Democrats get in, the question was raised as to what extent they can go to Beijing and whether Beijing would listen. Beijing feels that they have been lax in dealing with Hong Kong. They want to have more control. However they would see how it works if Democrats get in with 50% of Legco elected.
The Chief Executive Role is very complex. It covers both the role that Hong Kong has in the international arena as well as local governance of a city of 6 million people. In other countries, the local governance issues would be taken on by an elected representative such as a mayor with local councils, leaving international affairs to a separately elected representative with a different mandate.
Media plays a large part in educating people and shaping their understanding. The media in Hong Kong tends to denigrate political parties. They take their cue from the authorities and are naturally suspicious of ulterior motives. Hong Kong media are all run as businesses and, to some extent, controlled by advertising.
We also need to consider the Greater China System together with our colonial background. The expectations of both local people and Beijing need to be managed. Hong Kong has constraints under the basic law. There was a view that we should not accept these constraints but try and change them.
Education was seen as important. There is a greater awareness of the need for activism. However, the public needs education from an early age to become involved, targeting the young people to become more interested and aware of politics. At present the school and university environment mirrors the population as a whole with a gap between the political parties and a disinterested public. School students are not encouraged to participate and even the PTA is not encouraged to participate in school affairs. Student Unions are very conservative and distrustful of political parties.
6. Ideas for Future Action
Ideas to change the current disinterest and improve community involvement and the chance for introduction of full democracy focused, first, around building up the political party system. Participants at the workshop considered that the party system should be strengthened and given credibility so that it becomes the conduit for the Governance process through developing policy. To do this we need to build on political parties for public participation and support continuous dialogue with central government.
Other aspects have surfaced in all groups discussions: participation and education. The questions were posed as to how to obtain, ensure and inspire continuous widening participation and what part does education play in widening participation.
Ways to improve funding political parties is required so that the cycle of lack of funding, lack of resources to develop policy and subsequent lack of interest in political parties can be broken. Formalisation of the political parties requires legislation to recognize them and to provide rules for funding.
However, there was also the need to make radical changes to the government's 'consultative' processes which are not working. A complete revision is needed to change the administrative culture to the concept of 'community involvement' rather than 'consultation' when minds have been set and become immovable. If this were to be done it would, in turn, develop the communities understanding of democracy.
7. Conclusions and Future Actions
A key determinant in a full democracy is the direct election of representatives with the consequent ability to change the status quo. Participants at the workshop considered that the means to achieve this was through the political party system which should be strengthened and given credibility so that it becomes the conduit for the Governance process through developing policy. Businesses, schools and the community were all identified as possible conduits for educating the people of Hong Kong in the democratic processes.
The community needs to understand democracy and political parties need to develop. Capitalism is a desirable part of a democracy, but this has to be tempered with responsibility for all sectors of the community.
It was also perceived that the government need to involve the public in its decision making rather than the present system of merely 'consulting' at a time when it is difficult to change the decisions.
It was proposed that the HKDF continue to promote discussion of Democracy, picking up some of the aspects shared by this workshop and considering the function of various key determinants to understand better the role they might play.
Reproduction of this paper is permitted with proper attribution to the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation