HONG KONG—Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s billionaires have played a leading role in hewing the Asian financial center to Beijing’s priorities. So too have a dwindling band of fishermen and farmers.
The desire of China’s communist leaders to enlist the tycoons’ cooperation is understandable given the influence they have through their control of large swathes of the semiautonomous Chinese city’s economy. Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping last year summoned a group of them for an emergency meeting as political tensions in Hong Kong mounted.
Less known outside Hong Kong, however, is the political role of fishermen and farmers, remnant industries in Hong Kong that form a large slice of the 1,200-member committee that selects the southern Chinese city’s pro-Beijing leader. They also have their own representative in the territory’s legislature.
Fishing and farming make up less than 1 percent of Hong Kong’s $274 billion economy but command 60 votes in the leadership committee, far more than groups or industries with much greater economic or social significance.
Their outsized role is a source of discontent in a city that was rocked by pro-democracy protests over the past year as many Hong Kongers chafed against a rising tide of mainland Chinese influence.
“The system is totally unfair,” said Drake Leung, one of an estimated 48,000 people who turned out for an annual pro-democracy march on July 1. Leung said fishermen and farmers served only as “rubber stamps” for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leadership.
“Maybe 30 or 40 years ago there were actually more fishermen or farmers in Hong Kong. Now society has changed so much but they still retain this system, this framework to oppress the views of the people,” he said.
Pro-democracy activists, who blocked streets for more than two months last year to demand a free election for Hong Kong’s leader, want to modify or eliminate the system, saying it’s opaque and heavily skewed toward pro-Beijing business interests and trade groups.
They opposed a government proposal that would have allowed all adults to vote for a leader, but only for candidates that met with Beijing’s approval. In the end, Hong Kong’s feisty legislature vetoed that idea. Pro-democracy lawmakers regarded it as no improvement on a status quo already rigged in China’s favor.
Crouching on the wooden decking of a fish farm floating off one of Hong Kong’s small islands, Lai Tak-chuen, whose father was also a fish farmer, poured pellets from a 20-kilogram (44 lb.) bag into one of his pens as saba, or mackerel, snapped furiously at the water’s surface.
Lai, who has served on three election committees since 2000, reflected on how his business has recovered after the so-called Umbrella Movement protests, which gripped Hong Kong from late September to mid-December.
“During those 70–80 odd days, many hotels came to a complete stop. Our brothers and sisters from the mainland didn’t travel down here,” he said. “Business completely stopped, no one was eating fish. If you have fish you can’t sell then it’s a loss. This is the biggest reality. We know what bitterness is like.”
Now, he said, “it’s better, people have started coming back to Hong Kong, they’re eating fish, the environment is better.”
Lai said he supported the idea of a territory-wide election race among Beijing-approved candidates. But “it was vetoed so there’s nothing you can do,” he said.
Sentiments like Lai’s add weight to the pro-democracy camps’ complaints that the system is stacked heavily in favor of pro-Beijing groups. Fishing and farming are among 38 groups represented on the election committee, but seats are distributed unevenly and arbitrarily, experts say. The 60 seats allocated to fishing and farming are, for example, more than triple the 18 seats allotted to finance, the mainstay of Hong Kong’s freewheeling economy.
Hong Kong’s fishing industry relies on access to Chinese fishing grounds and assistance from mainland authorities in case a ship gets into trouble, making it unwise to go against Beijing.
Lai, 68, acknowledges that nowadays few young people want to go into fishing, instead opting for more stable jobs.
Government figures show Hong Kong had 8,800 fisherman in 2013, down from about 50,000 in 1970 before the city began its transformation into a wealthy Asian financial powerhouse.
The prospects for fish farming are also just “so-so,” said Lai, who earns about HK$15,000 ($1,900) a month on average.
The quirky election system is a legacy of the British, who in the 1980s introduced legislative elections that gave seats to the business and interest groups, known as functional constituencies.
The Chinese liked the system so much they kept it after realizing they could use it to exert influence and keep loyalists in power, said Simon Young, a Hong Kong University law school professor who wrote a book about the city’s elections.
Over the past year, it’s become apparent that China’s leaders don’t want to tinker too much. Beijing has “indicated great concerns with adopting too open, too democratic a system that allows the people to choose representatives,” he said.
Another complaint is the system’s lack of transparency.
In 2011, some 159 registered electors from Lai’s Ma Wan Fisheries Rights Association and 75 other obscure leagues chose their group’s 60 representatives, who all ran uncontested. But little is known about these groups and what they do. Only six people named to the committee left contact information with the election commission.
Committee members mostly vote according to Beijing’s wishes, although Lai said he didn’t receive instructions in the 2012 selection of current leader Leung Chun-ying. He said he made up his mind after watching two televised debates in which Leung’s rival performed poorly.
He wasn’t sure if he would be asked to serve on the committee that will choose Leung’s successor in 2017.
“We’ll see if it’s convenient for the fishermen,” he said.