There is a clear line between the right to protest and obstruction of the law. Villagers in Yuen Long violated it on Monday while protecting illegal structures in a rural leader's commercial recreation park in the Tai Tong Lychee Valley, part of which is illegally on government land. As a result land officers and workers sent to remove them left without doing so. Thankfully, officials lost no time in upholding the law, returning on Tuesday with more than 100 police to back them up and finishing the job.
The 12,000-square-metre park, co-owned by rural leader Leung Fuk-yuen, has illegally occupied government land, some of it in Tai Lam Country Park, for 18 years. Lands officials did not follow up repeated warnings with prosecution. Prompted by a critical report by government auditors, officials moved in a month ago to remove structures from the country park. Dozens of protesters eventually dispersed without serious incident. Regrettably, they did not exercise the same restraint when officials showed up this week to remove illegal structures on government land outside the country park, after the park's owners had not complied with an order to do so. Villagers and park employees chased away a contractor's truck and, later, hurled insults and threats of 'bloodshed' at officials and workers.
The land abuses in the recreation park are an egregious example of official slackness when it comes to enforcement. The problem is compounded by penalties that are derisory compared with the profits to be made from abuses. Development minister Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor sent the right message when she vowed to call on police backing if officials or workers are threatened, and ordered a review of penalties. She rightly said the issue involved the government's credibility in law enforcement. Prudent management of scarce land, including a balance between conservation and development, is of paramount importance. Tolerance of illegal land use and double standards of enforcement no longer meet public expectations.