Rural strongman Lau Wong-fat on way out as Heung Yee Kuk’s power fades

The intention of some Kuk leaders to form a political party is to reassert its influence, but it’s unlikely they will find another chief as effective

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 1:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 March, 2016, 1:16am

Rural strongman Lau Wong-fat is retiring from public life in stages due to ill health. Hong Kong as a whole will benefit to see the last of him along with a diminished Heung Yee Kuk.

A consummate politician and businessman, he has cleverly exploited the post-handover government’s reliance on the Kuk’s political support to game the system for “villagers”, many of whom may not even live in rural areas, or even in Hong Kong.

This primarily has to do with the small house policy, an ill-conceived administrative measure dating back to the early 1970s under the colonial government.

The gender-discriminatory policy provides a plot of land to build a house for every male indigenous villager in the New Territories.

It was clearly intended to be a temporary measure to resolve the housing shortage during the colonial era. But Lau and the Kuk have successfully turned it into an open-ended commitment by the government and an ancient land right protected under the Basic Law.

The legal basis of their argument is weak, but they have never been challenged in court. The government, counting on the Kuk as a reliable political ally, acquiesces to it at the expense of the rest of Hong Kong.

Given the city’s chronically high property prices, the policy has enriched countless villagers and encouraged dodgy land deals across the New Territories. It makes urban planning in rural areas difficult, if not impossible; reduces the supply of land; and encourages land grabs and other lawless acts.

Lau is reportedly one of the largest private landowners in the New Territories. A long-serving chairman of the Kuk, he has resigned his post in favour of his son. More recently, he has quit the Tuen Mun District Council and the district’s Rural Committee. It’s just a matter of time before he will be replaced in the Legislative Council.

Lau’s withdrawal from public life coincides with the decline of the Kuk. Top government officials have questioned the validity of the small house policy. They are also at loggerheads with the Kuk over other rural developments such as expanding landfills.

The intention of some Kuk leaders to form a political party is to reassert its influence. It’s unlikely they will find another chief as effective as Lau.