(This essay was published in SCMP on 4 June 2014.)
The majority of Hong Kong people want a more democratic political system, but progress has unfortunately been slow. Political divisions are giving rise to growing impatience and policy-making paralysis; a symptom found in some mature democracies. It is beginning to take a toll on our city’s competitiveness.
Hong Kong’s functional constituencies have been held up as one of the key stumbling blocks to democratic progress here. Because they are not popularly elected (unlike the geographical constituencies), and because they are seen to represent narrow and vested interests, there have been repeated calls to abolish them.
I believe these criticisms are misplaced. They focus on the method of electing functional constituencies, not functional constituencies themselves as an institutional arrangement for aggregating political preferences. If candidates from functional constituencies faced popular election at the ballot box, there would be no compelling reason to abolish them in favor of introducing more geographical constituencies.
For geographical constituencies are problematic, too. They emerged in pre-industrial society when people lived in self-sufficient agricultural communities, but they are not necessarily the most suitable arrangement for a market–oriented, industrial society.
One of the by-products of geographical constituencies has been the tendency of democracies to overemphasize social concerns at the expense of economic ones. Another has been government inadequacy in addressing larger concerns that affect the population as a whole, in the face of local political resistance originating in geographical constituencies.
We have seen examples of this in Hong Kong over the siting of waste management facilities, schools for the mentally handicapped, halfway houses for convicts, and other issues unpopular with local neighborhoods. The notorious inability of transnational efforts to tackle global environment problems can be similarly explained since the nation state is simply another form of geographic constituency.
Political representatives returned through geographical constituencies are far more inclined to concentrate on life- rather than work-related issues. If elections in Hong Kong were based solely on geographic constituencies, local politics would work against the city’s aspirations to be an international business and financial center. Some form of countervailing political force is needed to keep inward-looking forces in check for the larger interest.
This is why Hong Kong is fortunate to have functional constituencies, which can address a wide range of economic and social concerns not adequately represented through geographical constituencies. Reforming them to meet the public’s aspirations for greater democracy would, I believe, be much easier than reforming geographical constituencies, where gerrymandering is a common problem.
Functional constituencies do need to be reformed. Currently, they serve the interests of the service providers and not the customers, and they are structured to defend existing interests rather than promote openness and competition.
Any change in their elections would have to strike a balance between competing interests, but I propose there is a way that provides a role both for the consumers and the producers: let producers assume responsibility for nominating candidates in their functional constituency, and let these candidates stand before an electorate that includes all voters representing the consumers. Functional constituencies would thus become a voice for both producers and consumers.
In practice, this would mean allowing voters to cast two votes: one (life-oriented) vote in the geographical constituency where they reside and the other (work-oriented) vote in any functional constituency of their choice. The functional constituency vote would be a territory-wide vote, and the voter would not have to belong to the functional constituency in which he voted.
This system would be a dynamic one that could respond to evolving voter interests and preferences because voters could easily enter and exit a constituency. Such flexibility is not possible with geographical constituencies because residents do not move frequently, especially those living in subsidized housing estates, and long, cumbersome negotiations are required to redraw district boundaries, if indeed this ever happens at all.
Building more flexibility into the political representation process is particularly important for Hong Kong as an open city economy whose prosperity depends on being well integrated with the world and the Mainland. Reformed functional constituencies could help to achieve this goal, while geographical constituencies could continue to represent local and life-related interests. Hong Kong has the opportunity now to enact this change and develop a more effective system of democratic government.