July 1st is the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China. Today is also the day on which Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive—the head guy, who in this case happens to be a woman—will be sworn in to office. I thought this would be a good time to try to explain Hong Kong’s political structure to my non-HK readers.
I started to write this very correctly, giving background and checking facts and so on, but that quickly became too much for my brain, so I’ve decided to just give you my understanding of how the political system is set up here.
The highest office is Chief Executive. Anyone can put their name forward for CE, but names on the ticket have to be approved by Beijing. The CE is then selected by a 1,200-member Election Committee made up of representatives of HK’s “functional constituencies” (see below). The CE selection must be approved by Beijing.
The Chief Executive then heads up an Executive Council (Exco), which is responsible for policy matters. Exco is a non-partisan, non-elected executive branch. Its members are selected by the Chief Executive, but his/her appointees must be approved by Beijing.
So Exco gets to work and decides it needs a new policy on statutory working hours, for example. Once crafted, the policy goes to the Legislative Council (Legco) for debate, refinement and passing.
Legco consists of 35 members representing geographical constituencies who are directly elected by Hong Kong citizens. There are another 35 seats from “functional constituencies”, which represent certain sectors like engineering, education, accountancy, labour, import/export, etc. Those representatives are elected by a mix of vote types—they could be individuals or institutional votes or both. In the “Sport, Performing Arts, Culture and Publication” functional constituency, for example, only certain organizations are eligible to cast a vote on behalf of their staff or members, assuming they solicit input from them.
There are another 30 seats of other functional constituencies related to the business and professional sectors. Only about 250,000 people vote for those representatives yet they control about 25% of Legco. Almost anyone with business interests in Hong Kong also has business interests on the Mainland.
Exco members are not aligned with a political party, but Legco members are. I love some of the names of these parties: Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Civic Passion, People Power, Youngspiration, and so on. There are currently 17 different parties in Legco, but what it really comes down to are the three “camps” into which these parties fall. Legco members are either pro-Beijing, pro-democracy, or localist. The biggest voting bloc is the pro-Beijing camp.
Are you with me so far? Good because this is where the fun starts. Because there is no real party system, Legco members can vote whichever way they want. And because many of them are representing a very specific slice of Hong Kong, like fishermen or taxi drivers, those reps will only be looking out for their group’s particular interests. “For the greater good” seems to rarely factor into the equation. The business sector will never align its interests with the labour sector for example, so common ground on legislative bills is extremely rare. Suffice it to say that gridlock, inertia and disfunction prevail.
So there you have my description of HK’s political structure. I will offer up one observation, and that is there seems to be a massive absence of political talent in Hong Kong. The Chief Executive’s 16 Exco appointees are all career bureaucrats, with only one new appointee and only one woman besides Carrie Lam herself. And she was Chief Secretary, the second in command under the previous head guy, following a long civil service career. None of the Legco members seem to have any idea what “public service” means or how to shape debate in a meaningful way. My impression is that it is self-serving, unsophisticated governance.
Of course there are many good people working hard on behalf of citizens, but they are not to be found in the political system.
So on this July 1, a holiday called “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day”, Carrie Lam is being sworn in by the President of China himself. Apparently, 10,000 police have been deployed for the occasion, partly for security and partly to quell any localist demonstrations, which would be embarrassing to the government. Only a handful of invited guests will attend the celebratory events. Unlike Canada Day (also July 1) where Parliament Hill and Ottawa’s downtown will be thronged with hundreds of thousands of celebrants, not to mention the many celebrations taking place in every Canadian community, there seem to be few rallying points for local festivities. Hong Kong people don’t really feel inclined to celebrate the handover. And so Hong Kong moves on, 20 years later, but not really 20 years ahead.