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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong's new pro-democracy politicians balance competing agendas

District councillors weigh support for protests against local issues after election win

Supporters of pro-democracy candidate Angus Wong celebrate after he won in Hong Kong’s district council elections on Nov. 24. The poll saw a sharp rise in the election of young, first-time candidates.    © AP

HONG KONG -- Over the past four years, Dino Chan, a district councillor in Hong Kong, has been busy dealing with minor issues -- some of them seemingly trivial -- in the community where he serves. Among them: water leaks in old buildings, traffic congestion and organizing decorations in public spaces during holidays and festivals.

But as the newly reelected Chan begins his second four-year term this month amid the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, he is facing unprecedented duties.

After police made dozens of arrests on Jan. 5 during another weekend demonstration in the outlying New Territories, Chan was at the neighborhood's police station for over 12 hours, working intensely to confirm the identity of detainees, notify their families and find legal aid for them.

"My job is to help my constituents, regardless of what problem it is," said the 31-year-old Chan of the Democratic Party, which won the largest number of seats in the district council elections in late November.

The role of the district councils, Hong Kong's municipal-level advisory body, marked a major shift following the pro-democracy camp's big victory. Having claimed a majority in 17 out of 18 districts in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, the group can now easily pass motions, plan budgets and design agendas.

Hong Kong District Councillor Dino Chan of the Democratic Party speaks with his constituents. The city’s 18 district councils are a municipal-level advisory body mandated to advise the government on local public works and community activities. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

Even though councillors lack lawmaking powers, positions in district councils offer political parties ample resources to broaden their supporter base. In 2020, each district has an annual budget of between 30 million and 40 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.9 million and $5.1 million) for infrastructure projects and other amenities.

At the top of their agenda is to provide support for the protests, now in their eighth month and which call for wider democratic freedoms and universal suffrage in the former British colony.

Some longtime pro-democracy politicians and observers stress the need for newly elected district councillors to serve their communities, and that support from voters could suffer if they direct more focus on broader matters at the expense of neighborhood issues.

The poll saw a sharp rise in the election of young, first-time candidates. Many of them said they were inspired to run after the pro-democracy protests began in June.

"I will continue to focus on community work while speaking up for politics," Chan said. "It is a common misunderstanding that the two are separate issues, but politics often lies behind the problems we have in local communities."

On Nov. 25, the day after the election, newly elected pro-democracy candidates hurried to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the scene of a violent standoff between students and police, to show their solidarity with the protesters.

As soon as their tenure began on Jan. 1, they began passing motions urging the Hong Kong government to set up an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, one of the protesters' key demands. Some of the pro-democracy district councillors also pledged to financially support the protests, by donating part of their salaries and hiring arrested protesters as assistants.

"This is exactly what my voters expected of me," said Jordan Pang, who, at 21 years old, is one of the youngest district councillors in Hong Kong's history, as well as a final-year student at the University of Hong Kong. "They voted for me because I can represent their political stance."

Pang defeated 45-year-old Horace Cheung, a pro-Beijing party veteran who served his district for eight years, despite having no prior experience in local politics.

The rise of young, first-time candidates with no political party affiliation indicates "the voters were largely politically motivated," said Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"They hope to use their ballots to express support for the protest movement and voice their discontent towards the ruling pro-Beijing groups," Chan said. "Political experience is of a lower priority."

But the heightened attention these rookie politicians give to the movement also raises the question of whether they lack a solid foundation to sustain public support during the current term, and that votes driven by frustration and anger could be feeble because the political atmosphere often swings.

In 2003, the pro-democracy camp scored a big win in the wake of a massive public protest match against a proposed national security law. Four years later, they lost most of their seats due to a low voter turnout rate as the political debate quieted down, but some blamed insufficient on-the-ground community services for the losses.

"I might be new, but I am determined to serve the residents' needs and bring about a positive change to the current system," Pang said. He stressed that both politics and community work are high on his agenda, detailing his efforts to engage more residents in the discussion of local affairs through greater transparency in meetings and social media.

"Gaining more trust and support from general citizens helps me to promote my political ideals more easily," he said. "Instead of alienating those who are not on my side, I want to engage them."

District councillors from the pro-democracy camp on Jan. 9 dress in black to show solidarity with protestors. District councils now place much emphasis on political issues after pro-democracy candidates staged a landslide win in November’s elections. (Photo by Michelle Chan)

The defeated pro-Beijing camp, which gained close to 40% of the votes in November's elections, also is planning a comeback. The city's largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB, has vowed to continue the regular operation of its district offices, which it can accomplish due to its financial strength.

It also has set up a watchdog organization, called district council observers, that aims at "monitoring the operations of the district councils closely," according to Chan Hok-fung, a DAB member who leads the group and who lost his district council seat in the recent election.

"It acts like a shadow council," he said. "We will keep a close eye on whether district councillors misuse any public funds, abuse their power or fail to follow proper procedures."

Meanwhile, more experienced politicians from the pro-democracy camp have organized workshops for young district councillors, serving as their mentors while they navigate their new jobs.

"We encourage them to initiate reforms and innovate," said Au Nok-hin, who served as a district councillor for two terms. "They have to make obvious changes in the neighborhoods to impress voters," he said.

Au also stressed the importance for newly elected pro-democracy councillors without specific party affiliation to "resist temptations," as the pro-Beijing camp could attempt to poach them because the young politicians are seen as being more vulnerable.

District council meetings, which previously received little public attention, have been met with great public interest as they kicked off this month. Citizens have lined up outside community halls for seats at the meetings, which have been livestreamed by local media.

One attendee, a 60-year-old retiree who gave his surname of Lam and showed up for a meeting at the Kowloon City district council on Jan. 9, said he feels "responsible to keep a close watch on the candidate he voted for."

That degree of public involvement -- voter turnout, at 71.2%, for November's election was the highest on record -- is encouraging for political observers.

"A higher degree of political participation is always a positive trend, no matter which party took office," said Kenneth Chan, the Hong Kong Baptist University professor. "It's all about checks and balances."

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