Hong Kong must seize the moment to end the abuse of land rights in the New Territories

Tony Kwok calls on government officials to channel public outrage over the Wang Chau housing project into society-wide support for the timely development of brownfield sites

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2016, 6:56pm

In my days with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, we often received complaints of corruption, fraud and abuse of position involving land issues in the New Territories.

These ranged from the misuse of agricultural land, the illegal transfer of “ding” rights – that is, the right of male indigenous villagers to build a house – and huge numbers of illegal burials in a village neighbourhood, to fraud involving government compensation for the resumption of land, as well as election bribery concerning rural representatives.

Any non-indigenous villagers living in village houses in the New Territories would have experienced the blatant abuse of land within their village. Village roads are blocked for the allocation of car parking spaces, for renting to local residents, with the rental income going into unknown pockets.

Make a visit to any of these villages, and it would immediately become clear that there was a huge fire risk – the roads are so narrow that it is impossible in many cases for any fire engine to get through. It is not difficult to imagine what would happen if a major fire were to break out in any of these villages.

In another example, although firecrackers have been banned in Hong Kong for years, during the Lunar New Year, they and firework displays are a common sight in New Territories villages, in blatant disregard of the law. During the recent Mid-Autumn Festival, lanterns were visible all over the night skies of the villages.

How to solve the rural land development challenge

In other cases, picnickers and hikers heading to the New Territories have been greatly inconvenienced as a result of the sudden closure of village roads.

This is what happened in 2013 when rural leaders in Sai Kung decided to give a show of strength during a land dispute with the government by blocking the hiking paths in the village, with the public becoming the victims.

Some rural leaders are able to manipulate their privileged position for tremendous personal gain

All these instances seem to suggest that the New Territories enjoys special privileges in Hong Kong. This is largely due to the tolerant attitude adopted by the British colonial government. In order to buy the cooperation of New Territories leaders, the colonial government turned a blind eye to their abuse and disregard of the law.

Of course, not all rural leaders are unscrupulous, but it seems there are some who are able to manipulate their privileged position for tremendous personal gain, often at the expense of the public interest. Some may also be associated with the triads.

This is probably one of the reasons why Eddie Chu Hoi-dik succeeded in getting the highest number of votes (84,121) in any geographical constituency in the recent Legislative Council election. I believe most of the voters wanted to express their discontent towards rural leaders’ abuse of power. I also tend to believe that the alleged criminal intimidation of Chu and his family has a ring of truth about it.

Despite row over rural land, the provision of affordable housing must remain the priority

The Wang Chau housing development dispute in Yuen Long has revealed our ridiculous predicament in Hong Kong. The disputed land was originally agricultural land, yet the landowners converted it into a “brownfield site” for car parks or other commercial use, making huge profits as a result.

Moreover, these rural leaders seem able to show a strong, concerted and uncompromising attitude in blocking the government’s proposed resumption of land for building public housing estates, against the clearly much greater public interest of the 7 million people in Hong Kong.

I believe the dispute has a positive side too: it could engender public sympathy for the government’s efforts to acquire land in the New Territories. Though determined to ease the acute housing shortage, the government has to confront at least three major opposition forces in trying to get more land: the existing occupants refusing to be evicted; the environmentalists refusing to give away one inch of the countryside; and, the rural kingpins wanting to maintain their local influence. Hopefully, public sympathy can galvanise support for the government to stand up to the rural leaders in the resumption of land in the future.

The government should grasp this opportunity and quickly publish a master plan for all brownfield sites in the New Territories, and conduct a public consultation exercise. Hopefully, with strong public backing, officials can push through land resumption as efficiently as possible.

Why a shift in political fault lines threatens Hong Kong’s rural power brokers

Officials in government departments should be more proactive in policy enforcement in the New Territories. Rural leaders need to be sent a clear message that they need to abide by the law, just as any other citizens in Hong Kong.

“Ding” rights cannot be granted indefinitely, as it is clearly unaffordable for Hong Kong when land is so scarce. Ideally, it can be resolved through fair negotiations. The alternative is for the National People’s Congress to pass an interpretation of Basic Law Article 40, stating that ding rights are not intended to be indefinite.

Further, the structure of the Heung Yee Kuk needs to be modernised. Like all other statutory bodies, it should allow the appointment of independent members to its executive committee, in the interest of public accountability and transparency.

In addition, the two elected village representatives – one an indigenous villager and the other any resident, thus representing two different interested parties – should enjoy similar rights as representatives of New Territories residents.

Tony Kwok is former deputy commissioner and head of operations at the ICAC, and is currently an adjunct professor at HKU SPACE