The proposed compulsory sale of a half-century-old noodle factory in Sham Shui Po has turned out to be a huge misunderstanding. Officials are now saying that the owners do not need to surrender their property because the building is only 36 years old; the law only covers buildings that are 50 years old, or older.
The biggest joke is that everyone involved in the case - senior government officials, lawmakers, politicians, the media, the developer and the property owner - seems to have misinterpreted the law. Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is primarily responsible for this blunder, while those who have failed to monitor the administration - such as lawmakers, the media and pressure groups - should also shoulder a portion of the blame.
The new amendments to the Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance, passed in April, allow developers to force the sale of remaining units in a building once they have acquired 80 per cent ownership of it. The previous threshold was 90 per cent.
Before getting the full picture of how the new rules would apply, many critics accused the government of colluding with developers. Legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee even ran a full-page newspaper advertisement to denounce the new law. Her pro-people approach has made her the city's most popular lawmaker.
The new legislative amendments state that a developer can seek the forced sale of the remaining units in a building if it has acquired 80 per cent of the building's ownership. But it only applies to three types of buildings: any buildings older than 50 years, industrial blocks outside industrial zones that are older than 30 years, and those in which each unit represents at least 10 per cent of the building's ownership.
As it turns out, the building in question is not old enough, and each individual upstairs unit represents less than 10 per cent ownership of the building.
It's obvious that the compulsory sale law has not weakened property rights or deprived owners of their interests. The principle of the legislative amendments was to remove obstacles to urban renewal and so benefit the community at large. Those who have wrongly accused the government and misled the public now look ridiculous in this uproarious political farce. Legislators, whose main task is to monitor the administration, have neglected their duty by accepting Lam's explanation on the amended law without question or further investigation. No wonder most Hongkongers have so little confidence in the Legislative Council.
It's disappointing that some members of the Fourth Estate - the media - have been highly unprofessional as a government watchdog group. The media is vital to the checks and balances of a society and we certainly expect our media professionals to have journalistic independence, political neutrality, accountability and public responsibility. In this case, though, they merely recorded and printed what Lam said. What a let-down.
Other detractors, such as the Minority Owners' Alliance Against Compulsory Sales, also failed the public, and maybe it's time for it to disband. Instead of pointing an accusatory finger at the government, the alliance should salute it for giving affected property owners more bargaining power in the city's redevelopment programme.
Even the developer seems to have been taken for a ride, apparently believing it had the right to buy up the building for redevelopment. It does seem absurd for such a big company, undertaking a complex project that's worth billions of dollars, to have acted in such a fashion. Had it gone ahead with the demolition and redevelopment, the consequences would have been unimaginable.
But now developers that target old buildings for development to generate profits have lost a useful tool, and homeowners can rest assured they will not be misled into selling their flats any more, at least for now.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator