Briefing Note: The Election Committee and Functional Constituency Elections



On December 11, 2016, the Election Committee (EC) subsector elections will be held in Hong Kong.[1] These elections will select 1,034 of the 1,200 members of the EC which will elect the Chief Executive (CE) in March 2017. Due to the small number of EC members, the CE election and the EC subsector elections have been occasionally derided as undemocratic contests.

The relationship between Functional Constituencies and the EC

To understand some of the peculiarities of the EC subsector elections, it is helpful to analyse the traditional Functional Constituencies (FCs). Although FCs and the EC serve different purposes - the traditional FCs return 30 members of the Legislative Council (LegCo)[2] while the EC subsector elections choose the committee that will select the CE - their electorates overlap considerably and correspond to sectors of the community deemed to be politically significant by the Government. Each of the 28 FCs corresponds to an EC subsector with a similar name.[3] Both the FCs and the EC contain a mixture of individual and corporate voting.

There are some differences between the FCs and the EC besides their contrasting functions. Several EC subsectors are not represented in the LegCo, such as the Chinese Medicine EC subsector, which does not have a corresponding FC.[4] Also, while every FC except the Labour FC returns one LegCo member, the EC subsectors elect a range from 16 to 70 EC members.[5]

The colonial foundations of FCs in Hong Kong

From the mid-19th century to 1997, Hong Kong was under British colonial rule.[6] No LegCo members were popularly elected until 1991. However, justices of the peace and the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce nominated and “indirectly elected” members to the LegCo since 1884, which made these two groups the predecessors to modern-day FCs.

There are many reasons why the colonial government preferred “indirect elections” instead of direct elections. The British had no intention of allowing the Chinese majority to rule Hong Kong, as they felt full democracy would jeopardise Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. However, there was a need to select legislators who were prominent in business or the professions to command respect and represent politically significant community groups.

Thus, the colonial government began to form special relationships with certain sectors of the community, beginning with the British merchant class and later the Chinese business and professional elite, who would support British rule. By sharing power with these sectors and allowing them to nominate legislators, the administration could ensure the loyalty and the backing of the business elite while taking nominal steps to appease advocates of electoral reform in London and in Hong Kong who were calling for greater democracy in the region.

The 1984 Green Paper and the development of modern FCs

In the 1984 Green Paper on the Further Development of Representative Government in Hong Kong, the colonial administration pledged to develop a system of government “more directly accountable to the people of Hong Kong.”[8] However, the administration felt that the immediate introduction of direct elections would be inappropriate, as this would compromise stability and harmony. Instead, since “full weight should be given to representation of the economic and professional sectors of Hong Kong society which are essential to future confidence and prosperity,” the Green Paper recommended that FCs be created from the informal FCs represented at the time, including commerce, industry, the medical and the legal professions, educational institutions, the financial sector and labour organisations.

This led to the first LegCo indirect elections in 1985. Nine FCs were created from individual and corporate electors to return 12 LegCo members.[9] However, many sectors of the community were not represented in these FCs, such as women and employers. This suggests that the administration adopted a conservative approach towards increasing representation through the FC system. Indeed, Professor Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong notes that the FC system has never attempted to cover all the economic, social and professional sectors in Hong Kong.[10] In other words, the FCs were created due to “political forces and constitutional developments” rather than any “coherent theory” of representation.

In 1995, the last Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, introduced reforms that increased the potential size of the FC electorate from 104,609 in 1991 to 2,700,000 in 1995.[11] This was largely done by adding nine FCs that included all of the working population. After the People’s Republic of China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, these reforms were rolled back by reducing the potential FC electorate to 233,739. However, most FCs have remained intact and still represent the same broad sectors of the community today.[12]

The EC, FCs and Annex I of the Basic Law

The Basic Law of Hong Kong was promulgated by the National People’s Congress in 1990.[13] Annex I of the Basic Law states that the CE shall be elected by “a broadly representative Election Committee and appointed by the Central People’s Government.”[14] The 1988 Consultation Report on the draft articles of the Basic Law asserted that indirectly selecting the CE via the EC was preferable to direct elections because “Hong Kong people have considerable experience in functional constituency elections.”[15] Moreover, since industrialists and businessmen would have a significant role on the EC, this would maintain Hong Kong’s economic prosperity, which is provided for in the Preamble to the Basic Law.[16]

These justifications for the indirect election of the CE resemble the arguments made by the 1984 Green Paper for using FCs in the LegCo, such as economic stability and the critical role of business and professional elites. Simon Young notes that the FCs form the foundation upon which the EC system is built; moreover, there has been very little change to the EC system since its inception.[17] While the number of EC members for the four sectors was increased from 200 to 300 as a result of the 2010 Electoral Reforms,[18] the EC that will elect the CE in 2017 is comprised of the same 38 subsectors as the first EC formed in 1998 after the Handover, as shown in Table 2.

What are the chances of making the EC and FC system more representative?

According to the 2004 Interpretation by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of Article 7 of Annex I and Article III of Annex II to the Basic Law, any amendments to the electoral method for the CE and the LegCo must complete the “Five-step Process” which requires consent from the CE, the NPCSC and two-thirds of the LegCo members.[20] Due to the difficulty in gaining consensus from the necessary parties, only one such amendment has been passed, namely the 2010 Electoral Reforms which increased the number of LegCo and EC members in 2012 to 70 and 1,200 respectively. With the exception of the District Council (Second) FC, however, no new FCs were added to the LegCo and no new subsectors were added to the EC. In 2015, another attempt was made to reform the CE electoral method, but this was rejected by 28 members of the LegCo on June 18, 2015.[21]

The current CE, Leung Chun-ying, pledged in his Manifesto from the 2012 CE Election to attempt to “reform the 2016 LegCo FC elections” and “expand the electorate to enhance the representativeness of the FC members.”[22] However, no changes to the LegCo electoral system have been made to date. This is primarily due to the legal barriers involved in amending the Basic Law and the diversity of views regarding FCs and the EC. Some groups such as the Civic Party support the abolition of FCs entirely and are sceptical of any new FC additions.[23] Existing FCs or subsectors are also resistant to any changes in the system, since this would jeopardise their privileged status.[24] According to the Consultation Document for the 2012 Election Reforms, “some views” from the community opposed adding new FCs because this would “give rise to controversy” that would not lead to consensus.[25] Adding more FCs or EC subsectors would also go against the ultimate aim in the Basic Law to hold elections with universal suffrage, since FC members are not returned by universal suffrage.

The road ahead for FC and EC reform

The inability of the pan-democratic and pro-establishment groups to find common ground on electoral reform has dashed all attempts thus far to democratise the FCs and increase their representativeness.[26] The NPCSC also appears to favour the status quo for both the FCs and the EC. In the 2014 Explanations on the Draft Decision of the NPCSC on the 2017 CE Election, the NPCSC stated that the current method of indirectly electing the CE “meets the requirements of the Basic Law…and the objective needs to ensure balanced participation and fend off various risks during election of the CE by universal suffrage.”[27]

Thus, in the absence of a broad consensus for change, the Decision stipulated that any CE election with universal suffrage would require a nominating body composed of the same number of members, composition and formation method as the current EC.[28] The Decision also asserted that no changes to the LegCo electoral method would be made in 2016. Based on the Decision, regardless of whether CE electoral reform is somehow enacted, it is quite likely that the same 38 subsectors will be responsible for nominating CE candidates.

Professor Sonny Lo from the Education University of Hong Kong argues that only “incremental changes” to the CE electoral method will be acceptable to Beijing in the near future.[29] Yet even the modest reforms to the CE electoral method proposed by the HKSAR Government in 2015 failed to gain consensus to pass through the LegCo. This does not bode well for future attempts to increase the representativeness of the EC or the FCs. Any modifications to the FCs in the LegCo also seem improbable, since the 2014 Draft Decision made clear that universal suffrage for the LegCo election will not be granted until a method for electing the CE using universal suffrage is approved first. Thus, for better or worse, the EC and FC elections will likely stay a fixture of Hong Kong politics for years to come.

1 Facts and Figures, Elections.gov.hk, http://www.elections.gov.hk/ecss2016/eng/figures.html
2 Tanna Chong, LegCo election 2016: How a handful of voters elect 30 Hong Kong lawmakers, South China Morning Post, February 6, 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1421613/legco-election-2016-how-handful-voters-elect-30-hong-kong-lawmakers
3 A List of 28 Functional Constituencies and 38 Election Committee Subsectors, Electoral Affairs Commission, http://www.eac.gov.hk/pdf/legco/2000/en/e1_appendix_i.doc
4 2004 Legislative Council Elections: Inclusion of Registered Chinese Medical Practitioners in the Medical Functional Constituency,
5 Facts and Figures, Elections.gov.hk, http://www.elections.gov.hk/ecss2016/eng/figures.html
6 Christine Loh and Civic Exchange, Functional Constituencies: A Unique Feature of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006), pg. 42-43.
7 Eva Liu and S.Y. Yue, Political Development in Hong Kong since the 1980s, Legislative Council Secretariat, September 1996, http://www.legCo.gov.hk/yr97-98/english/sec/library/956rp17.pdf
8 Green Paper: The Further Development of Government in Hong Kong July 1984, http://www.hkpolitics.net/download/hkpolitics_report/1984respgovt_e.pdf
9 White Paper: The Further Development of Representative Government in Hong Kong November 1984, http://www.hkpolitics.net/download/hkpolitics_report/1984wrespgovt_e.pdf
10 Simon Young and Anthony Law, Privileged to vote: inequalities and anomalies of the FC system, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006).
11 Simon Young, The Meaning of the Right to Vote in Hong Kong, McGill Law Journal 1997.
12 Facts about the Election, Elections.gov.hk, http://www.elections.gov.hk/legco2016/eng/brief.html
13 Welcome Message, Basic Law Promotion Steering Committee, http://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/.
14 Annex I of the Basic Law.
15 The Draft Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China Consultation Report (Volume 5): General Report on the Articles, Consultative Committee for the Basic Law (1998), pg. 979.
16 Preamble of the Basic Law.
17 Simon Young and Richard Cullen, Electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), pg. 56.
18 Package of Proposals for the Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive and for Forming the Legislative Council in 2012, Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, http://www.cmab-cd2012.gov.hk/doc/package/package_e.pdf
19 Simon Young and Richard Cullen, Electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), Appendix 3.
20 Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive in 2017 and for Forming the Legislative Council in 2016 Consultation Document, The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, December 2013, http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr13-14/english/panels/ca/papers/ca1209-cdoc20131204-e.pdf
21 Hong Kong reform package rejected as pro-Beijing camp walk out in ‘miscommunication,” South China Morning Post, June 18, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1823398/hong-kong-political-reform-package-voted-down-legco-leaving?page=all
22 Leung Chun-ying, Manifesto for the 2012 Chief Executive Election, March 2012, http://www.ceo.gov.hk/eng/pdf/manifesto.pdf
23 The Stance of the Civic Party on the amendment of the 2012 Constitutional Reform Package, Civic Party, June 21, 2016, http://www.civicparty.hk/?q=en/node/2774
24 Simon Young and Anthony Law, Privileged to vote: inequalities and anomalies of the FC system (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006).
25 Consultation Document on the Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive and for Forming the Legislative Council in 2012, The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, November 11, 2008, http://www.cmab-cd2012.gov.hk/doc/consultation_document_en.pdf
26 Sonny Lo, ‘Scrap-or-keep’ debate on functional constituencies leads us nowhere, South China Morning Post, October 21, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1336568/scrap-or-keep-debate-functional-constituencies-leads-us
27 Explanations on the Draft Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016, http://www.2017.gov.hk/filemanager/template/en/doc/20140827a.pdf.
28 Method for Selecting the Chief Executive by Universal Suffrage Consultation Document, The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, January 2015, http://www.2017.gov.hk/filemanager/template/en/doc/second_round_doc/Consultation_Document_(Full)_Eng.pdf
29 Sonny Lo, Hong Kong’s Indigenous Democracy (Hong Kong: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 158.