The men in the middle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

When it comes to negotiating compensation for New Territories villagers, hysterical shouts and verbal abuse often pass for discussion. Top officials usually go out of their way to tolerate such deliberate, and highly effective, antics. Vested interests and powerful forces are usually at stake, yet hidden from view.

And in the middle, one often finds the Heung Yee Kuk. On the one hand, the powerful rural group appears to help the government mediate; on the other, it represents the interests of rural residents. Whether this is conflict of interest or honest brokering depends very much on one's perspective.

One such meeting took place in October between villagers from a Shek Kong village and Eva Cheng, the diminutive secretary for transport and housing. After six months of fruitless bargaining, she finally showed up in person to face the ire of villagers at Tsoi Yuen Tsuen. The villagers were ostensibly unhappy about being asked to demolish their homes and lose their ancestral land to make way for a new high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong and Guangzhou. But cynics might observe that many were salivating over the prospect of squeezing the last penny out of the government's compensation fund. They were ready to play hard ball the New Territories way.

Cheng, a seasoned civil servant and now a minister, is more used to negotiating in gilded boardrooms with fine furniture and thick carpets. The heat and shouting quickly got to her, and she soon lost her cool. Nevertheless, she took comfort from the man who was there for her every step of the way.

Given the potentially combustible situation, the government made sure Lau Wong-fat - executive councillor, lawmaker and New Territories Godfather - was there so no villager would try to spit on, beat up or otherwise physically harass Cheng.

As the longtime head of the kuk, 'Uncle Fat' - as he is known to most people - offered better protection than a platoon of police officers could. When we called Cheng's office to ask what Lau was doing there, her public relations minders referred to him by his endearing moniker. Quite simply, everyone gives face to Uncle Fat, especially in the New Territories. As the head of the kuk, Lau, 73, has become Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's troubleshooter of choice. Whenever a dispute or incident in the New Territories threatens to cause embarrassment or difficulty for the government, Lau and his aides will be there.

To appreciate his importance, consider this. While Lau spoke on stage during a National Day celebration this year, eight of the government's most powerful figures - Tsang included - stood dutifully behind him, smiling appreciatively. Lau has earned the respect he commands. He was the person officials ran to when irate residents in Mui Wo objected to the relocation to their village of the Christian Zheng Sheng College, a drug rehabilitation school for young people. Lau worked his magic and the dispute quickly quietened down.

In March, truckers and their supporters at a nearby village blocked a major access road at Fairview Park in Yuen Long. They caused traffic gridlock every morning and evening. The private estate's owners and their management company tried to stop them from using the road out of safety concerns. Attempts at mediation by honchos from various government departments and district police commanders failed. Then Uncle Fat showed up one morning: magically, the blockade was lifted, the road opened and the two sides compromised. Lau and other kuk leaders may look like consummate mediators, but the solutions they have helped broker almost never come cheap - for taxpayers, that is.

The government is building a HK$100 million road, to be opened by 2012, that will provide a convenient alternative route for truckers and their village supporters in Yuen Long. Officials can argue, quite legitimately, that it is being built for all road users, not just the truckers, though the latter will likely benefit the most from the expensive road. Not so easily defensible is the HK$1.5 million road maintenance programme officials have earmarked for the Fairview Park road. Residents there said regular use by heavy trucks has damaged the road, which requires constant repair. Still, it is hard to see why public money should be spent to help resolve a private dispute. And while Uncle Fat stood beside Cheng at Tsoi Yuen Tsuen, it is not clear whose side he was really on. Already, the government has agreed to more than double the compensation being handed out to Tsoi Yuen villagers.

The kuk represents rural interests. But as an Exco member, Lau also represents the government and Exco's collective responsibility for all its deliberations and decisions, made in the interest of Hong Kong. Besides the huge land banks held by the city's largest developers in the New Territories, Lau is probably the single largest owner of rural land. According to Exco members' last declarations of assets, Lau owns 320 blocks of land and property across Hong Kong and has interest in 72 companies. He has a resort hotel and residential project in Yuen Long and property developments in Tuen Mun and Sheung Shui. He also enjoys close ties with the major developers.

The kuk has always been powerful, even before Lau took over the helm in 1980, but he has made it media-savvy. Even so, repeated requests for an interview or comment were ignored by his office.

The organisation was founded in the mid-1920s and is one of the oldest power bases in Hong Kong. However, there is a perception that its influence is on the wane as a result of urbanisation across large swathes of the New Territories. The opposite is the case, said Tik Chi-yuen, a former legislator who served as a North District councillor from 1988 to 1994, and Lau is just the public face of a very powerful group of villagers.

'It is a misconception that the influence of indigenous villagers has waned since the urbanisation in the New Territories in the past few decades,' Tik said. 'Their influence is particularly strong in district council constituencies, where hundreds of votes would be enough to secure a seat. Even in Legco elections, indigenous inhabitants are a force to be reckoned with in constituencies where the degree of urbanisation is relatively low, such as Northern District.'

He said a substantial number of appointed district councillors in the New Territories enjoy close ties with rural communities. The kuk, a statutory body, is in reality an umbrella organisation of 27 rural committees representing all eight districts in the New Territories, including the outlying islands. In recognition of their influence, chairmen of the rural committees are all ex-officio members of district councils.

The kuk's enduring power has a lot to do with the way the New Territories came to be part of British Hong Kong. When the Qing dynasty leased the 'New Territories' - or the southern part of Xinan county - to the British government in 1898, indigenous villagers led by leaders of the great clans staged an armed struggle the following year to resist the 'British barbarians'. The rebellion was suppressed by the British army as the villagers did not have the support of the Chinese government. Amid the turmoil in 1899, governor Henry Blake issued a proclamation in Chinese stating that the landed and commercial interests of all inhabitants would be safeguarded and their usages and good customs would not be interfered with.

The colonial government gradually forged an alliance with rural leaders to help maintain stability in the New Territories. Since their urbanisation starting in the 1950s, the government had been relying on rural leaders to facilitate the process of land resumption. During the 1967 riots, the kuk even sided with the colonial administration. In a statement in May 1967, it expressed 'unreserved support and praise for the government's measures to maintain the peace, law and order of Hong Kong'. Some rural leaders initiated a campaign to track down leftist troublemakers; they were later appointed justices of the peace. In its united-front offensive in the 1980s to forge an alliance to support the return of Hong Kong's sovereignty after 1997, Beijing strove to win over indigenous villagers in the New Territories.

Rural leaders, led by Lau, succeeded in convincing the Basic Law Drafting Committee to add a clause in the mini-constitution to guarantee the 'traditional rights and interests' of indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories. The 'traditional rights' include that of indigenous men over the age of 18 to build a three-storey 'small house' in their village. The 'small-house' policy, implemented in the New Territories since 1972, has caused endless headaches for the government and essentially makes urban planning impossible in many areas.

Lau was appointed to Exco in January. The move sparked speculation that the appointment of the rural patriarch was a political reward ordered by Beijing. Lau left the Liberal Party amid a row over his backing - during last year's Legco election - of a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong candidate for a New Territories Legislative Council seat.

As a result, then Liberal Party vice-chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee lost her seat. At the time, Allen Lee Peng-fei, the party's founding chairman, claimed Lau was rewarded by Tsang with the Exco seat on Beijing's order. Both Tsang and Lau have denied the claim.

The political influence of indigenous villagers is out of all proportion to their size. They number about 400,000, less than one-seventh of the 2.9 million people residing in the New Territories. But they enjoy a greater say through the structures of the kuk, the rural committees and the district councils.

Stephen Chiu Wing-kai, a sociology professor at Chinese University, said: 'The indigenous villagers are one of the few organised forces in Hong Kong. Village representatives possess relatively strong power in mobilising fellow villagers.'

Tik, the former lawmaker, described indigenous villagers as an 'organised minority' that is often capable of imposing its will on the 'silent majority'. 'Indigenous villagers often resorted to radical actions in defending their interests. That's why government officials can't afford to turn a blind eye to their appeals.'

In a sense, Lau is not so powerful that he has control over the 27 rural committees and their leaders. Rather, he never gets in their way when their interests are at stake. Indeed, time and again, he helps to fight for them. The kuk rarely complains when villagers build illegal roads and houses, annex public areas for private use or dump waste on green land. It can even be argued that the small-house policy and the resulting eyesores dotting the New Territories work against the interests of large developers and landowners like Lau. Better urban planning and improved roads would have multiplied land value and made properties worth much more than now. But given his position at the kuk, Lau has, over the years, had no choice but to defend the policy, which villagers consider sacrosanct. This is despite the policy's legal and constitutional basis being highly questionable.

Siu Kwok-kin, a professor at Zhuhai College's department of Chinese and an expert on Hong Kong history, said indigenous villagers had never been shy about demonstrating their power. In 1994, pig farmers released chickens and ducks in Chater Road and brought traffic chaos in Central during a protest against a new waste disposal bill, which made it an offence to dump untreated animal waste. Chicken excrement was hurled and fighting erupted between police and pig farmers. In the same year, a controversial legislative amendment spearheaded by former legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai to the New Territories Land (Exemption) Ordinance provoked another round of violent protests. The amendment gave indigenous women land inheritance rights but rural leaders accused it of destroying their clans and villages. Some male villagers threatened to rape Loh for proposing the changes that would change a custom dating back centuries.

In 2006, opposition from indigenous villagers and the kuk forced the government to shelve a plan to build a central poultry slaughterhouse in Shek Wu Hui, Sheung Shui.

The Civic Party's Ronny Tong Ka-wah described Lau as a walking embodiment of conflicts of interest. 'The problem is that the government under Donald Tsang openly supports allies and is against people they believe to be hostile. So you have people like Lau, who are perceived as partners, put in positions of power regardless of their commercial and political interests,' he said. He argues the problem is a systemic one and the result of the lack of democracy and accountability. That may be so, but pan-democrats like Tong tend to idealise democracy.

The kuk has not only survived, but prospered, through the most tumultuous events in Hong Kong's history. It is a good bet its leaders will find a way to defend and further their interests even in a fully democratic Hong Kong.

Quick kuk

A brief synopsis of what the Heung Yee Kuk is and does

Founded in 1926, it represents the interests of about 700 villages in the New Territories.

The kuk advises the government on New Territories affairs.

It comprises the chairmen and vice-chairmen of all 27 rural consultative committees in the New Territories, plus several special members.

The members, together with 23 advisers and 39 overseas advisers, form an assembly of councillors to elect the kuk's chairman and vice-chairmen. The assembly also includes justices of the peace in the New Territories.

Was granted a functional constituency seat in the Legislative Council in 1991.