When legislator Kwok Ka-ki bad-mouthed Hong Kong's property developers for being greedy, one of them threatened to sue him. But then he backed off. Stewart Leung Chi-kin of the Real Estate Developers' Association conceded he could not sue even if he wanted to because, as a lawmaker, Dr Kwok enjoyed legal freedom to speak his mind while in the Legislative Council. I can think of only one reason why Mr Leung got so worked up over Dr Kwok's attack. His head was buried deep in sand for too long. Otherwise, he would know that many Hongkongers share Dr Kwok's claim that our developers are greedy.
Dr Kwok did not only tar the developers on greed. He labelled them as con-men as well, risking the ire of our powerful tycoons by suggesting they made all their millions through 'wicked tricks' to cheat small homeowners of their life-savings. Again, Mr Leung only has to feel the community's pulse for a moment to know that many homebuyers believe they are getting a raw deal from our developers. Why else do you think that even our failed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, whose head was deep in sand for much of his term, had to buckle and take seriously the stink over claims of collusion between the government and big business? Collusion became such a dirty word in the public mind during Mr Tung's leadership that his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was forced to say on the record that he would fix it. But he is moving at glacial speed.
What likely provoked Mr Leung to threaten legal action was Dr Kwok's shaming of the tactics developers use to measure the size of a flat that is being sold. By counting areas such as lift lobbies, corridors, car parks, thickness of walls, and communal gardens, developers can charge for a much larger flat than its actual usable size. There's no law that says they can't do that. Most homebuyers feel they're being cheated but believe they're helpless against the powerful real estate industry. Not long ago, developers even demanded a deposit up front without first telling a buyer how much a flat cost. Public fury, not government action, shamed developers into dropping that practice.
Homebuyer resentment runs like a raw nerve through the heart of the industry, and developers don't like it when people like Dr Kwok hit that nerve. They circle the wagons and shoot back whenever critics question why homebuyers do not get the actual flat size they're promised on paper. I have often wondered if homeowners who have no choice but to accept the lift lobby or corridor as part of the size of their flats can turn these areas into an extra bedroom or study. After all, they've paid for it.
Officials have made clear they do not intend to confront the developers. Whenever tough action is required, our government prefers backing down to showing backbone. Examples are its reluctance to legislate against polluted emissions by power and bus companies, idling vehicles, exploitive wages, and deceptive flat sizes. Officials like to dupe themselves into believing voluntary good behaviour is the best policy. They tried it for years in the fight against racism. The bigots laughed and paid no heed. In the end, the victims shamed the government into half-hearted action.
Property developers are already seen as an exclusive cartel which places profits above all else. They have this image of having the government in their pockets, and enriching themselves at the expense of the people. Mr Leung only confirms this image with his threatening talk of lawsuits. Instead of self-denial, the industry needs to get real and recognise that its role in society stretches beyond fattening its bank account. And it is time the government showed some backbone. Legislators have passed a motion that improves protection for homebuyers. The government can give legal teeth to this motion, or it can turn its back and show itself to be spineless while homebuyers are made to pay for lift lobbies and corridors.
Michael Chugani is a broadcaster and columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org