Compromise on illegal structures the best for all

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am


The Heung Yee Kuk, which represents the interests of indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories, recently staged a confrontation with the government on the issue of illegal structures.

As I have said before, I am all for a negotiated settlement. The problem has become too prevalent to tackle, and so the government should not enforce the demolition of all illegal structures built before a certain date, as long as they are structurally sound and will not cause any public safety hazard. After such a moratorium, the size of the problem would be reduced greatly and the relevant laws could then be strictly enforced in the future.

It is difficult to win public sympathy by arguing that this minority group from the New Territories should be accorded certain privileges forever.

This part of Hong Kong was called the New Territories because it was leased to the British in 1898, decades after Hong Kong Island and Kowloon south of Boundary Street were ceded via earlier treaties. In short, 'New Territories' is a colonial concept, and, after the handover, the term has become meaningless. But we are used to it and do not bother to change it.

Let's now take a Chinese perspective. The indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories are so called because their ancestors settled here a few hundred years earlier than those in other parts of Hong Kong, but they are as indigenous as other Chinese nationals. As such, there is no case for any preferential treatment for this minority group.

It is true that Article 40 of the Basic Law stipulates that 'the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the 'New Territories' shall be protected by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region'. But the small-house policy was introduced only in 1972. It is commonly regarded as one of the measures to pacify the New Territories after the 1967 riot, and cannot be construed as one of the 'traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants'. It is open to question that every male adult should be entitled to a free plot of land to build a house, and even more ludicrous to assert that rural buildings are above building codes.

In older days when the veteran kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat wielded considerable power, he could skilfully use it as leverage to get the most from the government. Now he seems to be losing influence and has been under pressure to retract his moderate public position on the issue and adopt a hard line.

Ordinarily, this government can be bullied into submission after some noisy demonstrations but, this time, with solid majority backing, the government will lose much more if it backs down under the pressure of a small and unpopular pressure group.

Making a scene with shouting and effigy-burning cannot change this fact, and all it does is further alienate the self-styled indigenous inhabitants from the general public. Should the New Territories interests push too hard and infuriate the public further, the tactic will backfire and the New Territories' small-house policy will be sure to come to an end earlier.

In fact, with only a few more months in office, this administration is not in a position to strike a bargain even if it wanted to. Another window of opportunity will open when the new administration takes office.

Confrontational tactics will not serve the kuk's interest. A negotiated compromise will be the best outcome for all parties, and this will pave the way for a city-wide settlement of the thorny problems involving illegal structures.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development