(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 9 April 2014)


In last week’s essay, I showed that there is nothing inherently undemocratic in using functional constituencies for filtering political candidates through elections compared with geographical constituencies. The current functional constituencies adopted by the Selection Committee for Chief Executive (a possible precursor to the Nomination Committee for Chief Executive) and the Legislative Council can in principle be reconstituted to make them compatible with popular democratic principles. Let me elaborate further on this.


An individual or a household has two primary forms of activity – work and life. Geographical constituencies may be suitable for aggregating the views of voters concerned about life-related issues where their homes are located, but not for issues related to their occupation and the industry they work in. Today most jobs are no longer located where people live.


Political representatives returned through geographic constituents are far more inclined therefore to concentrate on life rather than work related issues. For example, Hong Kong’s District and Legislative Councilors are overwhelmingly concerned about local issues and their success at the ballot box often depends on effort spent handling these issues. Very often the voters themselves have little interest in anything other than these immediate local concerns.


Politicians reaching out to geographical constituencies often find that the number of voters belonging to any single industry or occupation in their district to be too few to be worth any effort to address their concerns. The political payoffs are too small for them to develop expert knowledge in such territory wide subjects. They only tend to focus on territory wide issues, for example, Hong Kong’s rapidly ageing population, when there is a local payback – in this case, to reach out to the many retired voters who are much easier to mobilize at the local district level. The territory wide issues of social security and welfare therefore receive far more political attention in geographical constituencies because local voters rally around these issues, making it easier to organize them.


Failures of Geographical Constituencies


The tendency of democracies in many developed countries to overemphasize social concerns at the expense of economic ones is often the product of elections organized solely along geographical constituencies.


Similarly, the failure of policy to adequately address many environmental and other concerns that affect the whole population is often the outcome of political resistance originating in geographical constituencies that are unwilling to bear the costs of various remedy and preventive measures to tackle these concerns. The “not in my back yard (NIMBY)” mentality is well known to all who have dealt with the siting of waste management facilities, schools for the mentally handicapped, halfway houses for convicted criminals, and other unpopular issues with local neighborhoods.


The notorious inability of transnational efforts to tackle global environment problems can also be similarly explained since the nation state is simply another form of geographic constituency with national boundaries.


International trade and investment are important sources of prosperity in today’s economy, especially for Hong Kong, but they are yet another area that can be affected by geographic constituencies. People on both sides of a national boundary share a common interest in promoting free trade between them. But citizens on one side of the boundary are not eligible to vote in the elections on the other side. When elections are organized solely through geographical constituencies, then protectionism becomes an inevitable outcome. It is a form of discrimination against outsiders.


The US has a federal system of government. Each state has residual political rights and conducts its own state elections to elect a governor. Fortunately federal interstate commerce laws limit interstate protectionism to mitigate the damaging protectionist effects of geographical constituencies. But in China, the regional structure of administrative organization encourages inter-provincial barriers to trade and investment that continue to be an obstacle to the formation of a fully integrated national market economy.


As an open international city, Hong Kong’s economic prosperity depends on being well integrated with the world and the Mainland. Becoming insular and protectionist will sound its death knell.


A democratic political system based solely on geographical constituents is therefore not ideal for representing the long-term popular interests of the Hong Kong electorate in a balanced manner.


The Case for Functional Constituencies


The sentiments of geographical voters could, however, be balanced by electing representatives returned through functional constituencies, who express the concerns of the adult working population. Many of them are middle-class individuals whose work pays for the taxes that fund public spending.


A society where every voter has two votes – one (work-oriented) cast through functional constituencies and the other (life-oriented) through geographical constituencies – has a better chance of balancing important and substantive interests and preferences.


At present, Hong Kong legislators returned through functional constituencies are not popularly elected. This can be changed by transforming functional constituencies from being a voice for producers into being a voice for both consumers and producers. One possible solution is to make the producers in a particular functional sector assume responsibility for nominating candidates to stand in its functional constituency. These functional candidates must seek votes from all voters. Voters have the right to vote for any candidate in any functional constituency. Under such an arrangement producers have the right to nominate candidates and consumers have the right to elect the candidates.


Every voter therefore becomes eligible to cast two votes: (1) one for candidates in the geographical constituency where the voter resides, and (2) one for candidates in any functional constituency the voter wishes to cast his vote. The functional constituency vote is a territory-wide vote, and the voter as consumer does not have to belong to any of the functional constituencies he votes in.


One would expect the distribution of voters across functional constituencies to change over time as the economy evolves. So some functional constituencies may receive more votes than others. This injects an element of dynamism that would reflect evolving voter interests and preferences. The number of seats in each functional constituency could be same initially, but not necessarily permanently so.


Geographical constituencies could also have this dynamic element if their boundaries were redrawn from time to time to reflect the movement of individuals and families across the territory. But achieving this is a very slow process, if indeed it happens at all. Redrawing boundaries involves a time consuming and cumbersome administrative process that requires negotiation and bargaining among different vested interests.


Functional constituencies that allow voters to elect candidates in any constituency will be more responsive to changing voter interests and preferences. The exit-and-entry of voters would be easier in functional constituencies compared with geographical ones. Democratic politics could then be far more responsive to the changing needs of the economy and society. Political gridlock would then become less common.


Building more flexibility into the political representation process is particularly important for Hong Kong as an open city economy. Since the 1950s, Hong Kong has transformed from an entrepôt into an export-oriented manufacturing city and then, with China’s opening and economic globalization, into a producer of services and a service export economy. It is now an international financial center for Asia and China. At each stage, the interests of the city and its people have shifted.


The Curse of Gerrymandering


Of course, incumbent politicians in both geographical and functional constituencies have an interest in preventing any adjustment process that would reduce their political influence. When elections are based on geographical constituencies, it becomes tempting to gerrymander, a common practice that attempts to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries along partisan lines.


Functional constituencies dominated by producers manipulate the political process by lobbying for government subsides and protectionist policies to entrench their interests in their own industries and occupations. This is often achieved by controlling the entry of members into the industry and occupation.


Unfortunately the results of some of these lobbying efforts may not always promote the public interest. For example, the protection of industries and occupations is a problem when producers’ interests dominate functional constituencies at the expense of consumers. Another notorious example is the wasteful duplication of facilities in numerous locations under geographical constituencies.


But functional constituencies are less likely to be dominated by producer interests if consumers are also free to vote in any functional category and choose any candidate. This would achieve a much better balance of producer and consumer interests. Geographical constituencies are much less able to achieve such a balance because moving residence is an infrequent event for most households. With limited entry-and exit of residents, the preferences of long-time residents dominate in geographical constituencies. This situation reproduces conditions analogous to having producer dominated functional constituencies. In Hong Kong residents in public housing estates are the most long time residents (at least eventually) in a district. Their interests and preferences would tend to dominate over all others.


Why Functional Constituencies in Hong Kong Should Be Reformed


Transforming functional constituencies in Hong Kong’s legislature to be popularly representative would produce public decisions that are likely to be a considerable improvement over those in most popular democratic systems based solely on geographical constituencies. Given that, why haven’t this been previously put into practice? This is one of the unfortunate consequences of path dependence in history.


Functional constituencies were first introduced in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to replace appointed legislators by ones elected from among various business and professional elites and elite groups. Historically the appointed elites had performed an important advisory and legitimizing role to enhance the effectiveness of unelected colonial rule. But, while they were quite influential in public decisions, they only served at the pleasure of the Governor. They were not part of a formal political structure representing the collective interests of society. The colonial government administration was always careful to ensure that appointed elites were merely performing public service and were not part of the power hierarchy.


With functional constituencies, that arrangement changed as the elites became part of the formal political structure. They shared legislative powers with other legislators returned through popular elections in geographical constituencies. This dual arrangement was not without historical precedent in the development of democracy, but it immediately divided society into two camps – the elites and the non-elites – forcing the formal political institutions of society to become institutionally divided.


Moreover, the geographical constituencies had been introduced at the same time as popular elections, making it almost impossible to replace them as an election arrangement. They have produced sufficient numbers of stakeholders whose continued political and other fortunes depend on keeping the arrangement and entrenching it further.


On the other hand, functional constituencies have historically been used to represent only producer interests. Once producer dominated political arrangements were eclipsed by democratic principles, their fates were sealed. Geographical constituencies were able to assume a moral superiority over functional constituencies.


Weakness of Elite Rule


Politics in Hong Kong thus became divided in the legislature at an institutional level. The pro-democracy camp had its beginnings in the geographical constituencies and the establishment camp in the functional constituencies. Over time the divisions have twisted and turned but they still remain.


These political divisions continued after 1997 when the Selection Committee for the Chief Executive was formed into 4 sectors and 38 sub-sectors that appeared to be close cousins of the functional constituents in the Legislative Council representing the elites and elite groups. This made the dominance of elite influence even more apparent. Political life was explicitly divided between the elites (the establishment) and the non-elites (the pro-democracy advocates).


Political Career and Fragmentation


A particularly troubling feature of this political arrangement is that while elite groups can gain access to power through their dominance of the various functional groups, their hold on power positions have become increasingly without political legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of non-elites. Moreover, the unchanging compositions of the functional groups also make them increasingly unrepresentative of the wide spectrum of economic and social interests in society.


For self-interest reasons, it would make sense for political representatives from geographical constituencies to push for the elimination of functional constituencies altogether rather than reforming them. This would minimize political competition for themselves from another source of power.


But in the absence of political development, the fate of the non-elite groups is no better either. They have literally no prospect of ever getting into power and their ambitious members are unable to develop a career path in politics. This creates two problems. First, the training of political leaders in governing positions fails because outstanding individuals are no longer attracted into a career in politics. Second, the only individuals who are attracted to party politics are those prepared to be in permanent opposition. This breeds political radicalism.


Political parties, regardless of their political persuasion, face fragmentation and radicalization as their young, ambitious members are unable to ascend to positions of power. This has been the fate of the largest non-elite political party, the Democratic Party. It remains to be seen whether other parties will also suffer from similar limitations. This is probably unavoidable under the current political ecology.


If so, then the only common political experience of the new generation may become that of political fragmentation and radicalization. This ultimately means majority democratic rule becomes impossible and a tyranny of minorities will prevail.


Can this be avoided in Hong Kong? My essay next week shall explore our possible next step.


Sixteenth essay in the series on Rekindling Hong Kong’s Magic


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