Tea Leaf Nation

Let Them Eat Fish

How Hong Kong's fisheries and other interest groups dominate the city's Beijing-backed political system.


If the Hong Kong protesters succeed, and every adult could vote in the 2017 chief executive race from a publicly chosen slate of candidates, who in the current elections system would be the biggest political losers? The Aberdeen Fishermen Friendship Association, for one. Not to mention the Shau Kei Wan Stern Trawler Fishermen’s Credit Co-operative Society and the Lamma Island Lo Dik Wan Aquaculture Association.

What are these organizations and what do they do? Who knows, says Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist with Hong Kong Baptist University who has studied the city’s election system for two decades. "As long as I’ve lived here," he said, discovering what such groups do and who runs them has "been damn near impossible. We’ve tried." While they’re apparently trade groups for certain areas of Hong Kong like Aberdeen, their exact purpose, and the officials who represent them, remain unknown.

But they are important. The fishing folks of Aberdeen and seventy-five similar leagues make up the Agriculture and Fisheries functional constituency, one of the 38 interest and political groups that — unlike the city’s 7 million citizens — chose the city’s chief executive C.Y. Leung in 2012.

Since late September, protesters on city streets have demanded that Beijing withdraw a new election plan that would vet Leung’s successor. Receiving less attention is the student leaders’ call to banish functional constituencies, some of which wield outsize power despite their tiny sizes.

A surprising number of protesters can recite electoral system rules and election committee proportion minutiae while railing about the power of interest groups.  "Fisheries!" spat Wilson Wong, 22, a University of Hong Kong student. When was the last time, he asked, that fishing was an economic force in Hong Kong? On Oct. 21, student leader Alex Chow told government officials in a live broadcast that, "Abolishing functional constituencies is a matter of urgency." If the city did so, he said, many protesters would go home.

The system is another gift from the British. In the mid-1980s, more than a decade before the 1997 handover of this former colony back to China, the British created a legislative elections system that relied on a network of trade groups, unions and powerful constituencies to pick lawmakers, said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Relying on elite voters and interest groups, they reasoned, was a better way to take the pulse of Hong Kong than to try to discern the will of unknown voters.

Beijing thought the British model a grand idea. The system solidified China’s hold over Hong Kong’s business titans and kept loyalists in power, said Young, who wrote a book about the elections system. To create a balloting method, officials embraced the functional constituencies concept in new and bizarre ways.

The rules for the 2012 election allowed 1,200 election committee members to choose the city’s leader. Those seats were evenly divided among four sectors: the professions, such as lawyers and physicians; commercial and financial; labor, social and religious; and political groups such as lawmakers and representatives to Beijing. Thirty-eight subsectors chose these 1,200 election committee members.

This is where the system got funky. Subsectors had closed elections, if they had them at all. And the interest groups didn’t exercise equal power. The finance sector had 18 election committee members. Medical got 30. The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, had 36. The Agriculture and Fish folks picked 60 election seats of the 1,200.

Young said that in his years of research, he has not been able to find a pattern explaining how many seats go to which group. DeGolyer had a theory: the system rewarded Communist party loyalists, including fishing concerns. In the 1990s, pirates were preying on vessels plying the South China Sea, killing crews and selling the cargo to China. Aligning with Beijing bought boat owners protection. "Being a loyalist, it was easier to be in the fishing or shipping business,” he said. Indeed, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, became the city’s first chief executive after steering his family’s giant shipping container business, which Chinese state corporations bailed out of near bankruptcy. (Unsurprisingly, Tung has urged the current democracy protesters to end their sit-in.)

Many Hong Kongers are rankled by the clout of certain subsectors, which belies their industries’ size or societal influence. Sports and culture controls 60 votes, more than social services and industry. The 159 registered voters of the fisheries contingent picked 60 election committee members fueling each vote with far more power than those cast by the 86,600 registered education voters, who chose just 30 seats. "That means you’ve got this vast amount of voting power in the hands of a very small number of companies or bodies that have this ability to control a greater share of the number of seats," Young said.

Steven Ho, the lawmaker who represents the agriculture and fish functional constituency, says that trawlers and farmers deserve their electoral seats because they serve society, aiding food safety and curbing inflation. "Every single day we are serving the Hong Kong citizens our food, our products," he said. "Can any people live without agriculture and fisheries?"

Despite fishing’s political power, it has tanked economically. About 10,000 boats plied the waters in the 1960s; that number shrunk to fewer than 4,000 boats in 2013. That year, fishing fueled less than 0.1 percent of Hong Kong’s US $274 billion GDP. (Fishing’s employment numbers are so small, and vary so widely month to month, that the city won’t release the numbers, said an employee in the city’s statistics bureau, who declined to give her name.)

And just because fisheries associations voted, however, didn’t mean fishermen did. Many trade and commercial groups cast one ballot using a system called corporate voting. David Webb, a British-born former investment banker and transparency activist in Hong Kong, found that some professional groups — legal, medical and accounting — had thousands of individuals who voted for election committee members. But the government’s system of allocating one corporate vote to each association or company in certain industries has given that constituency — often business owners — great power. The owners have had an incentive to create new associations or companies within a sector, giving them more control over that sector’s votes.

Finding out who voted in elections requires hard digging. As Webb learned, the electoral register is not published. It is available for public inspection, but a researcher can’t make copies and it’s illegal to use it "for a purpose other than a purpose related to an election."  

Because of Hong Kong’s vast network of monopolies, some of the town’s most powerful executives and tycoons could cast multiple ballots through subsidiaries. With all of his various holdings, Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man with a net wealth estimated at $30.9 billion, conceivably could vote early and often. In 2005 Webb found that Li controlled seven of the 12 corporate votes in the transport constituency alone, according to a paper Webb posted on his website. (The media office at one of Li’s corporations, Cheung Kong Holdings, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Equal suffrage requires that government’s seats be distributed in proportion to a constituency’s size, Young said. A just, more rational system would allocate seats based on the number of voters or each trade group’s employment levels and economic contributions, he said.

Leung won the right to rule a city of 7 million people after receiving 689 votes of 1,132 ballots cast, a turnout rate deemed high in the election’s official report. "This is why the sense of unfairness is so profound," said DeGolyer, who has served as an educator elector. Today, the number "689" adorns posters at the protest sites, a code for Leung’s weakening influence and the system’s inequity. "How can we have an election where just 1,200 members vote?" asked Ching Chen, a 23-year-old University of Hong Kong student who has taken part in the protests. "That is the whole paradox of this system." 

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