Politics is a lot more than “important people” arguing with each other. Community-driven organisations play an unseen, yet essential, role in shaping our society – in both specialised areas such as animal welfare and more general issues like quality of living.
One of Hong Kong’s best-known animal charities, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), has spent many years lobbying, or trying to persuade, the government to reform animal welfare laws. Dr Fiona Woodhouse, SPCA Deputy Director of Welfare, co-wrote a 2010 government-funded report on the status of animal law.
Results never happen overnight. Laws requiring licenses for dog breeding came into effect in 2017, but “the SPCA had been trying to get dog breeding regulated since the 80s and 90s,” says Woodhouse. “I’ve seen letters from the government in 1992 that said ‘Oh, we will look at this soon’.”
According to Woodhouse, the lobbying process starts not with the government, but the community. “You’ve got to create the right environment and educate people, so that the issues you are working on get into the mainstream and people know what you’re talking about,” she says.
Even if there is public support for a new law, the process is complicated. Stakeholders have to be consulted, drafts must be written and revised, and bills have to move though the Legislative Council before they can be voted on and made into laws.
In last year’s Policy Address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised to amend Hong Kong’s animal welfare laws. She said that the new proposals would be presented to the public “early next year”. Public consultations finally began this month, but Woodhouse says the lobbying process started long before that. Animal welfare NGOs, including the SPCA, were already holding meetings with government last year.
Woodhouse says age shouldn’t be a barrier when it comes to getting involved in local politics. “Anyone can speak at Legco. My daughter – who was maybe nine at the time – spoke in Legco about the ivory ban. They don’t ask your age when you go to speak [to them], so get involved.”
Other lobbying groups are trying to make politics more accessible to the public, too. The Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), one of Hong Kong’s most prominent human rights advocacy groups, runs regular programmes on civic education. It also offers legal advice to some of Hong Kong’s needy, such as immigrants. What it really wants, however, is for the government to address the issues facing these communities. But as SoCO Community Organiser Sze Lai-shan explains, immigration is never an easy subject to bring up.
“It’s better if you talk about housing or low income subsidies,” says Sze. “No one likes to hear about the problems faced by immigrants – you get attacked. Social prejudices mean that even if we talk about serious problems, we get ignored. Even the government is scared [to address the problem]. They deny it, but what other explanation is there?”
Sze has been on the receiving end of this anti-immigration sentiment.
At a public consultation by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2014, a crowd chanted “Sze Lai-shan, go to hell!” repeatedly while she attempted to speak.
“Our job is to defend human rights, that’s the point of our organisation. It doesn’t make sense to ignore immigrants when they are the most in need,’ she says. “In Hong Kong, civil society isn’t very developed and there is a lack of awareness around human rights, even among those who advocate for it.”
Sze adds that while many people in Hong Kong care about social issues, they prefer not to disrupt the status quo. “For example, we can get donations to buy a schoolbag for a child, but when we ask for support on a project to solve the problem at its roots, we get turned down,” she says. “Very few people in Hong Kong have the mindset to change a policy.”
When it comes to tackling the real-life issues facing Hong Kong residents, district councillors are on the front line. As Southern District Councillor Judy Chan Ka-pui of the New People’s Party explains: “What we do is very real. Every councillor spends a lot of time in their constituency and listens directly to the concerns of the people. Even if you take a walk or go out to eat, residents come up and talk about their issues.”
And while everyday issues like water seepages, bus routes, and recreational activities form a large part of the job, sometimes bigger problems come up. Chan gives the example of a hotel development in the South Horizons area where she works.
HK Electric had originally submitted a request to expand the hotel from 500 rooms to 1,200 rooms to the Town Planning Board. However, there were a great deal of concerns from the residents.
“They were worried about the loss of peace and quiet in the community. Homeowners worked so hard to buy a flat, only for their neighbourhood to be disrupted.” she said. “Seeing the unity of the residents in voicing their objections to the planning board, HK Electric withdrew their application.”
Chan welcomes students interested in politics to join her party’s summer internship programme. “They would spend about half their time at our party headquarters doing admin and support work and the other half down at our local offices here learning about community work and meeting residents.”