There’s a deep malaise at the heart of Hong Kong politics

Mike Rowse says it is a sorry testament to the city’s political development that the strongest candidates for chief executive are all forced to blatantly put on an act when meeting powerful rural interests

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 8:38pm

Hong Kong’s three leading candidates for chief executive queued up one by one earlier this month to lobby for support from the Heung Yee Kuk. All three had no alternative but to kowtow to the powerful rural body – at stake were not only the 26 votes in the Election Committee held by the kuk in its own name, but also the 60 votes held by the agriculture and fisheries sector over which the body’s leading lights exercise a fair degree of influence.

You read that correctly: a significant bloc of 86 out of the 1,200 people or so who will decide who holds our highest public office for the next five years. By way of comparison, the financial services sector has 18 votes.

Kuk members basically want two things: the glorious gravy train of the small-house policy to roll forward unchecked; and for a blind eye to continue to be turned to illegal alterations and additions to existing village properties. They were not disappointed.

Everyone in Hong Kong knows that the small-house policy cannot possibly continue

Everyone in Hong Kong – including, one assumes, the three candidates themselves, plus, in their hearts, the members of the kuk – knows that the small-house policy cannot possibly continue. It gobbles up precious land with three-storey luxury villas in low-rise rural settings when there is a shortage of sites for intensive development to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of inadequately housed urban residents. Yet, on the day, all three pretended not to know. A fourth candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, had sailed a similar course on an earlier occasion.

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ducked the issue by claiming the small-house policy was the subject of legal proceedings. This was a cop-out. One aspect of the way the policy is implemented is under scrutiny by the courts, but the underlying rationale of the overall policy is not. Lam did speak up on the issue of illegal alterations. Some years ago, as development secretary, she promoted a scheme to get villagers to register their changes for “temporary exemption”. Rural leaders vehemently opposed the scheme and publicly urged a boycott, but now pretended that some villagers had “missed their chance”. Lam thought the scheme might be reopened.

Former financial chief John Tsang Chun-wah was also a fan of toleration, provided the changes were safe. He did at least address the issue of small houses and floated the idea of mixed development, which seemed to mean the traditional small house would have its usual three storeys but above it would be additional floors which could be Home Ownership Scheme flats.

While the 700 square foot flats would no doubt be welcomed by those now occupying much smaller subdivided units in the urban area, it would surely not be long before they compared their circumstances with the 2,100 square feet given to the villagers. And how long would it be before the villagers wanted their three floors to be a fabulous penthouse at the top of the tower blocks, rather than at the bottom? Who would pay the extra construction costs? Would the space for lifts be included in the 700 square feet or would extra land be allocated? Addressing such questions at the feasibility examination stage might well lead to the conclusion that the idea was not viable. But at least Tsang deserves credit for daring to convey the message to kuk members that land resources in the New Territories need to be shared by the whole community.

Hong Kong’s housing conundrum: Small-house policy, not indigenous villagers, the real problem

One-time security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee was also in favour of going high-rise on the small-house issue, and advocated negotiations with the kuk for a win-win solution. How silly we have all been. Despite half a century of searching in vain, the answer was apparently out there all the time.

Rights and wrongs: Hong Kong’s small-house policy for indigenous villagers is outdated and unfair

But I am being deliberately unfair to make a point. These candidates are all capable, honourable people. It says something rather sad about our political development that, 15 years after the introduction of ministerial accountability, the strongest candidates we can find are all former members of the civil service, the very people the new layer of political officers was supposed to replace. And it says something far darker about our political system that we have created a beast that requires honest men and women to dissemble quite so blatantly.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk