From Island to City: What we can learn from Cheung Chau’s Kaifong elections

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As soon as I stepped off the ferry and onto the piers of Cheung Chau, a whiff of nostalgia came over me. Glimpses of my childhood appeared before me as I wobbled under the influence of sea-sickness. The bikes, the street food, and tourists carrying heavy backpacks as they passed through this tiny, remote island southwest of the city. Other than being a little more crowded, the island was exactly as I left it.

Yet, unknown to most of us visitors, a recent local election has shown undercurrents of a paradigm shift.

(This article was first published in Chinese on February 4th)

Here come the challengers

On 25th January, Cheung Chau held its annual Kaifong (neighbourhood) Representative Elections (KFRE).  With 39 seats up for grabs, Community Alliance, a group of 31 traditional incumbents,  were all voted in. The younger, 30-strong “reformist” group, Cheung Chau 30 Power, was only able to win 6 seats. Out of the 6,658 eligible voters, 3,637 arrived at the poll stations, amassing a turnout of 54.63%

It was the first time the historic elections were officially held in accordance with the Rural Representative Election Ordinance, and thus under the mandate of the Electoral Affairs Commission. Last March, the bill to regulate the KFRE was passed in the Legislative Council. The Village Representative Elections Legislation was renamed the Rural Representative Elections Legislation, placing both village representatives and kaifong representatives under  the same regulations.

“There has never been a lot to choose from in past elections.”

While the new rules sparked new interest in the elections locally, what really drove a new found excitement, was the fact that a new challenger to the status quo appeared.

Mr Choi, the owner of a local cafe, was born and raised on the island and has voted in the past two elections, “There has never been a lot to choose from in past elections. From what I can remember, the past couple of elections only saw a little more than 40 candidates running for 39 seats.”

The quadrennial Kaifong elections follow a block system, giving every eligible voter 39 votes for 39 seats. Official data show that, 46 candidates ran in 2010. According to Cheung Chau North district councillor and Community Alliance member Ms Lee Kwai-Chun, a measly 41 ran in 2007.

This time, things were different.

A total of 70 candidates ran for this term’s elections, including 31 from traditional incumbents “Community Alliance” and 30 from 30 Power. Mr Choi believed this was a good sign, “In the past, it was always the same bunch of people doing whatever they wanted, hopefully this time more people from different backgrounds will win to keep each other in check.”

More power than you think

After the KFREs are over, the newly elected representatives will vote among themselves to form the Executive Committee of the Cheung Chau Rural Committee. According to official data, out of the 31 Community Alliance members, 24 ran in the 2011 KFREs and won, 12 of them sat on the 17 person Executive Committee. Out of the 2007 Rural Committee, 11 ran in this years elections with Community Alliance. Yung Chi-Ming, who is also the leader of the Alliance, has occupied the chair of the Committee for many years.

According to the Home Affairs Department, the role of a Kaifong Representative is to “reflect views on the affairs of the respective Market Towns (Cheung Chau and Peng Chau) on behalf of the residents”. But in fact, there is much more at stake.

Beyond participating in district matters and relaying the views of locals on policy, the Chairman of the Executive Committee becomes an ex officio member (by virtue of holding another office) of the Islands District Council. On top of that, the chair and the deputy chair of the 27 existing rural committees, together form the Heung Yee Kuk.

New kids on the block

On the eve of election day, we interviewed two important members from their respective groups.  Although it was clear the perceived district matters at hand overlapped significantly, the divide lay in a generational difference in the attitudes towards attacking these problems. Within in these arguments, lay an imbalance in power and resources.

As their name suggests, the inaugural Cheung Chau 30 Power consists of 30 candidates, of which 3 ran in the last election four years ago. The youngest of the group is barely in his mid-twenties. Mr Kwong Koon-Wan, who formed the group, is also the elected district councillor of Cheung Chau South.

“Young people have been left out, and resources are allocated to certain groups of people.”


As a member of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong (BPA), Mr Kwong began running for district councillor two campaigns ago, but  was defeated in 2007 by incumbent (since 1991) Kwong Kwok-Wai. It was only until the year 2011 when Kwong Kwok-Wai decided not to run anymore, that Mr Kwong Koon-Wan succeeded in replacing him.

The hope behind forming Power 30, Mr Kwong told me, was to bring in different types of energy into district issues, “Most of the current members of the Rural Committee are our “seniors”. If you look at the current local issues and the work put into dealing with them, young people have been left out, and resources are allocated to certain groups of people. We want to fight for the rights of young people standing from their angle, while we can still call ourselves one of them.”

A battle of generations

He brings up the example of the Harbour Front Pavilion, “All the traditional chanting for the dead, the hymns, and even the displaying of the casket, are all carried out in this area. It’s a huge nuisance to the local community, making residents nearby feel quite uncomfortable.” The Harbour Front Pavilion was originally a small piece of wasteland next to the harbour, and was used by locals as a venue for funeral ceremonies. As Cheung Chau underwent reclamation after reclamation, the Pavilion stood farther away from the ocean, and more and more people lived around it. Today, the area is still used for funeral purposes. “The problem has been around for years. If we don’t solve it now, then when should we?” exclaimed Mr Kwong.

With contrasting perspectives from their rivals, Mr Kwong was coy on whether it was a matter of generational differences, “Perhaps the two parties pay attention to different things, we think a lot of things need to be improved on, and fought for, but they may feel that, over the years, local residents have become accustomed to it all, and thus there is no need for change.” He added, “I can’t say all of them think that way, but they certainly give off that impression to the young people.”

“If we don’t solve it now, then when should we?”

On the Community Alliance  corner of the ring, stands another popularly elected district councillor,  Ms Lee Kwai-Chun. A member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) , Ms Lee has been a district councillor since 1991, and other than a short period in between, she has won her seat uncontested for numerous years.

“A bridge too far”

Ms Lee, fondly known as “Chun Jeh” (Auntie/Sister Chun), had this to say about the new challengers, “We both work for the kaifong, and the youth have their way of thinking, but they often risk going a bridge too far.” She singled out the difference the two groups have in dealing with prominent problems the ferries pose.

New World First Ferry Services took over exclusive rights to the Cheung Chau – Hong Kong route since early 2000。 In all those years, while the number of residents and visitors have increased year after year, the number of scheduled trips has remained stagnant, making it increasingly frustrating for residents travelling back and forth from the city. Before the elections, 30 Power suggested that the Rural Committee to leverage its influence in the community and lead a crowdfunding campaign . The money would be used to buy the ferries necessary to run the  Cheung Chau – Hong Kong route with residents, in the form of a social enterprise. Ideally, this would help cater the service to the needs of the locals more.

“They often risk going a bridge too far.”

“Chun Jeh” described these ideas as “a bridge too far” on several occasions, saying “(Operating a social enterprise) is not within the capacity of the Rural Committee. They could lead a crowdfunding campaign, yes, but if a large company like the current one has to deal with so many problems, then what about an inexperienced ‘social enterprise’? The fact is, the current company isn’t doing as bad as they (30  Power) have made it out to be. Presenting this option without considering the consequences can only be described as ‘a bridge too far’.”

She believes the most effective option now, is to hold talks with the ferry company. “Of course it would be great if someone was capable of (running the social enterprise), but I don’t think it’s a viable option. What we need to do is negotiate with the current company,” said Ms Lee.

Let the voters decide

But for Kwong and his team, the time for discussion has passed, “We’ve had discussions in the past. We’ve spoken with the Housing Bureau and  made recommendations to different parties, but there’s nothing we can do when they decide to ignore us.”

His team’s ideas don’t seem as “a bridge too far” as their rivals make them out to be, showing that they’ve crunched the numbers and have thought it through. “Cheung Chau’s residents and visitors have grown by approximately a million every four years, but the ferry schedule hasn’t increased accordingly. If we can operate a social enterprise together and continue to keep each other accountable, I believe we can at least begin solving the problems from the residents’ view point. Besides, this route has at least 10 million passengers per year, which comes up to revenue reaching hundreds of millions. Given these conditions, why shouldn’t residents be able to take back the initiative? ”

“Under a system of representative governance, voters must recognise the merits of our platform if they vote us in, which would give us the legitimacy.” Although challenged by his opponents, Kwong believes deeply in the judgment of the local voters, “We want to challenge ourselves and our ideas, and see if we can win the trust of Cheung Chau.”

It’s all about the community

While Cheung Chau engages in fierce district elections, the political atmosphere in the city has also rapidly intensified. Yet, both district councillors were unanimous in claiming the battle does not stem from differences in political ideology.

Although “Chun Jeh” is a member of the DAB, and during the Occupy Movement, responded to Robert Chow’s anti-Occupy movement and helped organised petitions, she was adamant that her focus was still in district works, “the atmosphere in the city has affected Cheung Chau, but within the district, residents will still judge you on the effectiveness of your local work, rather than political orientation. On Cheung Chau, you’re either a friend or a relative, so the atmosphere is less intense. ”

On the other hand, Kwong also belongs to the pro-establishment BPA, but his views do not represent the whole 30 Power group, “We have both blue ribbon and yellow ribbon members, so we make sure we lay down our political biases and focus on district matters.”

Fighting for a different future

Similar examples of the dichotomy between “Conservatives” and “Reformists” has seen a rise in Hong Kong and even around the world.

The student-led Umbrella Movement that rocked the foundations of Hong Kong’s political sphere has now extended to young people who wish to participate in this year’s District Councils Election, pointing their swords straight at the pro-establishment faction.

The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan also saw young citizens occupy the parliament building. More recently, the nine-in-one Taiwan elections brought about a dramatic change in various important incumbencies. In particular, the Taipei Mayor elections saw independent candidate Wen-Je Ko, who won the respect of the younger generation, defeat Kuomintang’s Sean Lein, son of Lien Chan. Before a crushing scandal, Sunflower leader Chen Ting had also announced his candidacy for legislature, and received popular support.

In Spain, the youth-led new party Podemos rose to prominence,  becoming the country’s fourth-largest party. The anti-austerity radical left-wing candidate was recently voted in as prime minister in Greece, becoming the youngest leader of the country in 150 years.

The divide in Cheung Chau is clearly not a matter of political orientation, nor is it a result of an unfair system. On the contrary, this phenomenon is a manifestation of the uncoordinated, slow replacement of the baby boomers by an up and coming generation of youth. The next generation has matured, but the former holding the power and resources has no plans to fade into the sunset just yet. At this point, while the older, more conservative generation naturally seek a gradual progression, the new generation has had enough of the same, and understandably, hope to take over.

The emergence of young reformists on this cozy, friendly island, reflects a brand of discontent towards an invariably conservative style of community leaders, hoping instead, to use creativity and courage to establish a new vision for the community.

Take heed, newcomers!

Cheung Chau island’s local elections, can be seen as a miniature version of the broader political sphere. An older generation refusing to step down, and a younger generation no longer content to simply stick to the status quo, and instead pursue change and reform.

Although crucial elements vary, and the outcomes have been different, it seems that this phenomenon is gradually gaining ground in world politics today. In Hong Kong, similar situations can be found in district council, within political parties, and even in broader society.

During the Umbrella Movement, supporters of the movement were not content with simply following the lead of conservative pan-democrats. Hong Kong Federation of Schools and Scholarism replaced the three leaders of Occupy Central and pan-democratic legislators to become the spiritual leaders in the fight for democracy. After the occupy ended, some young supporters formed “We are the future”, a new organisation bent on challenging the pro-establishment factions in district councils. The Progressive Lawyers group, mainly consisting of young lawyers, has also been receiving much attention since their inauguration.

In fact, criticisms from pro-democracy supporters against the Democratic Party (DP) has been on the rise. Last December saw the DP hold internal elections for their new Chair and Vice Chair. Young democrats Au Nok-Him and Stanley Ng Wing-Fai ran to challenge the old guard. When Emily Lau was re-elected Chair of the party, supporters of the pro-democracy movement widely criticized the party for its complacency.

Later, the DP’s long serving Secretary-General Cheung Yin Tung, along with his protege, popular young District Councillor Roy Kwong, resigned from their respective positions in the party’s central committee. It was suggested their resignations were due to their dissatisfaction towards party elders pulling too many strings behind the scenes and reluctance to pass the torch.

The DAB will also hold similar elections soon. Current chairman Tam Yiu-Chung has announced he will retire after eight years on the hot seat, touting 39-year-old Starry Lee as his successor. Clearly the pro-establishment party has learned from the DP’s PR disaster, showing an understanding that the rise of an impatient younger generation must not be overlooked.

Winners and losers

Nonetheless, while this new wave of challengers cannot be ignored, Cheung Chau 30 Power was only able to take 6 out of the 39 seats available. The entire Community Alliance was voted in, continuing their firm grip on majorities among the Kaifong representatives, and ultimately in the rural committee.

Reflecting on his group’s defeat, Mr. Kwong felt the measly 50% turnout was the most disappointing. He explained, “We expected it to be over 60%, but the results were disappointing; many residents told us the 8 pm closing time of the polls made it impossible for people who worked on Sunday to vote.”

He also admitted that the biggest reason was the fact that, to voters, his team was relatively new, having only begun their district efforts for short time, making it difficult to gain voter approval.

“Chun Jeh” on the other hand, believed it took dexterity to achieve a grand slam like they did, “We gave voters an honest explanation of the process, and handed out simulated ballots they brought into polling stations to vote accordingly.”

Yet the most important element was still their engagement with the community, which has facilitated a familiarity amongst residents. Basking in the glory of her team’s recent success, she shared, “In short, its about being affable, and frequently putting effort in the community – living with them, attending events, and enjoying all kinds of entertainment together.”

For those who plan to run in the next District Council elections, 30 Power’s experience in the kai fong elections are certainly worth learning from. To win seats, one must gain the ability to mobilize. This ability comes from hard work within the community put in over many years. Even the best ideas or any political ideology could not replace that. The dexterity “Chun Jeh” describes, and Mr Kwong and his team’s inability to estimate the turnout, which led to misjudgment of the situation, are both valuable references.

Why do we fall?

Despite failing in their endeavour to challenge the status quo, Mr Kwong believed this was only the beginning for 30 Power, “Indeed, we gained invaluable experience, and actually achieved decent results. We still gained the approval of many voters given our relatively new candidates, and the number of votes they each received were not bad at all. We will definitely have more confidence as we continue to work in the community.”

“Chun Jeh” also thought the newcomers brought a new kind of energy, and had these kind words for her opponents, “It’s always great for youngsters to experience setbacks, it makes them tougher. Just look at us. We’ve accumulated years of experience, and the locals approve the way we do things, which has allowed us to continue our work.”


After the elections, I contacted Mr Choi once again. When I asked him whether he was disappointed with the results, he said, “A little bit, but I also half expected as much. Community Alliance’s ability to mobilize voters is just too strong. All we can do is wait another four years to vote again.”

Although the result may leave some discouraged, the youth can always hope to turn it around come the next elections. Perhaps, this is the essence of democracy.

As for the present, what expectations does Mr Choi have for this batch of representatives?

He said with a bitter chuckle, “Nothing. It’ll all be the same.”