The controversy over illegal structures at village houses has intensified after tougher government enforcement began in the New Territories this month. Instead of co-operating with the government to tackle illegal building works, rural affairs bodies, which represent indigenous villagers' interests, have stepped up their efforts to fight the crackdown.
Rural leaders even called on villagers to boycott a registration system the government laid down to identify building breaches and vowed to resist any attempt to demolish their illegal structures.
The existence of illegal structures is a long-standing problem. In the urban area alone, some 520,000 illegal structures had not been demolished last year despite a deadline having passed. In some cases, owners had ignored demolition orders for over 10 years.
The problem is even more prevalent in the New Territories.
Development Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has vowed to eradicate the problem by stepping up demolition of illegal building works and speeding up prosecution in the urban area.
But Lam has been avoiding the problem in rural areas, giving villagers more leeway than their urban counterparts. Lam only took action against building breaches in the New Territories after Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin lashed out at the Buildings Department for not enforcing the law on illegal structures.
The issue involves the interests of hundreds of thousands of villagers and the development prospects of land worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It's not difficult to understand why villagers and rural affairs bodies have been vehemently fighting the crackdown.
What Lam is doing is giving villagers a kind of a pardon because the registration system, which took effect on April 1, will tolerate minor building breaches for at least five years. The grace period will spare them from demolition and prosecution.
In other words, she is letting them off without fully enforcing the policy, and this has infringed the principle of fairness.
Yet, despite her compromise, rural leaders still want more. Besides boycotting the registration system, they blame the government, saying its failure to enforce the law was the reason there were illegal buildings. How preposterous!
If we truly believe that we are all equal before the law, we must not allow two sets of rules to exist in the city so that one group of people has an advantage over another. The law should not be implemented differently to benefit a specific group of people. If the government is to pardon rural villagers, the same treatment should be extended to people in urban areas.
Enforcement action against those who flout the law must be equally applied, not just in high-profile cases. In the same way that the corruption investigation involving former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and the Sun Hung Kai Properties co-chairmen should not be politically motivated, the Buildings Department should not use its power as a political tool.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. email@example.com