Will officials' resolve to stand up to the kuk crumble?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am


Cheung Hok-ming, the lawmaker and vice-chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk, has proudly claimed that 'the kuk has never bowed to the government'. He made these comments standing alongside other leaders of Hong Kong's indigenous residents who came to show their solidarity with Leung Fuk-yuen, a kuk member who was resisting attempts to demolish illegal structures at his Tai Tong Lychee Valley park and zoo in Yuen Long.

It has taken the government almost two decades to take action over this flagrant flouting of the law on a very big scale. And these violations were aided and abetted by some of the most powerful New Territories barons, including Lau Wong-fat, who was hand-picked to serve in Hong Kong's highest policymaking body, the Executive Council.

Cheung's remarks reflect a feeling among the kuk leadership that it is above the law, except, of course, in those instances where its members are granted special privileges denied to the rest of the population.

None of these privileges is more valuable than the grant of land to male indigenous villagers, supposedly for homes but in reality often for profit as the land is sold on to developers - again, this is unlawful but almost routine.

In big and small things, the kuk has cleverly established itself as one of the most powerful entities in Hong Kong. A friend, who is a former police officer, recalls the trouble he encountered from his bosses when he had the temerity to issue a parking ticket to one of the kuk worthies. Apparently, they were 'excluded' from the various traffic ordinances.

How did we get to this situation where not only is Hong Kong run on a two-law system, but those who flout the law are showered with honours and prominent positions by the government?

In essence, it boils down to the unholy pact made between the former colonial authorities and the kuk in which the peace and orderly behaviour of the New Territories were traded for a raft of privileges. The wily kuk leaders were among the first to realise that this privileged position also required a rapid shift of allegiance prior to the end of colonial rule and they quickly developed a new-found love for the incoming rulers from the North.

Our two chief executives quaked in their boots when faced with the kuk, and the incumbent went so far as to place Lau in his cabinet as a means of demonstrating that the peace pact with the kuk was still intact.

However, this pact is becoming increasingly untenable. The day has long passed when the majority of people in the New Territories were represented by the kuk, and such is the absurdity of the present situation that many of those benefiting from the shoddy deals signed with the kuk no longer even live in Hong Kong.

Yet, there is a widespread feeling in government that the kuk is somehow untouchable. It is notable that none of the leading political parties has chosen to make an issue out of the abuse of kuk power.

It remains to be seen whether this long-delayed action against the Lychee Valley park marks a turning point. But it's worth noting that the development secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor described the demolitions as being about 'law enforcement' and, more importantly, about 'government credibility'.

She is precisely right. But will the government stay the course, especially, as has happened before, when the kuk calls on its powerful friends in Beijing to intervene?

None of this is to say that Hong Kong should ignore its indigenous people, although it is interesting to note that there is not a single piece of legislation that defines this group. The reason is that a definition is hard to make and it's been largely left to the kuk to decide who's in and who's out. Among those who are out are women, who make up half the population and have been the subject of rigorous discrimination by the kuk.

Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying is the first to assume office devoid of the kuk's backing and with no obvious debts of gratitude to be repaid. Although he has been sending out signals on a variety of subjects, he is notably silent on this one. He could make a difference, but will he dare?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur