Rural call to arms over plan to take land in New Territories

Opposition is mounting to a government plan to reclaim land in the New Territories, with villagers complaining they were kept in the dark

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 9:26am

It was a celebratory meal that woke Ping Che resident Lee Po-hang up to the fact that she would lose her home and be forced out of the village she has lived in all her life to make way for a massive new town.

"I only knew about this in July when one night, the big landlords from the rural committee threw a poon choi meal to celebrate. Of course they're happy. The government will buy their land for development," she said.

Like other non-indigenous villagers in Sing Ping village, Lee was born to parents who came from the mainland in the 1940s and '50s. Now in her 40s, she works as a private tutor and keeps a farm at the back of her house to grow vegetables and fruits for her own use. She lives with her 92-year-old father, who founded the school that nurtured almost everyone in the village until it closed in 1994. But her future is uncertain as the government presses ahead with plans to take over the land in 2017 to build homes and industrial zones.

The third round of public consultation on the plan for three new towns, known as the North East New Territories New Development Areas, finishes at the end of this month, but Lee and the other villagers are willing to continue their fight to save their homes in what is emerging as a future source of social conflict.

The project, which is intended to provide 53,800 new homes for 152,000 people as part of the government's drive to ease housing problems in urban areas, has raised the troubling issue of the different treatment of indigenous villagers, those who lived in the New Territories before the British took control in 1898, and those who arrived more recently.

The conflict came to the fore in the case of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen, a village demolished in 2011 to make way for the high-speed railway link to Guangzhou.

Unlike more recent arrivals, indigenous residents are protected under the Basic Law and have the right to move their villages to continue their rural lifestyle if they must make way for development. The conflict stems from complications over land ownership. Many non-indigenous villagers are, effectively, squatters, whose presence on government land has been "tolerated" as long as they did not develop it. Others bought their land from the rural gentry but received no paper records of the transaction. They will be offered only limited compensation or a place in urban public housing when they are forced to move on.

Residents in Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling, less accessible than the other two development areas in Fanling North and Kwu Tung North, have been the slowest in organising themselves against the scheme - partly because they do not have a social work body to represent them, and partly because few were aware of the implications of the plan, which will see their homes bulldozed to make way for industrial sites and 6,500 flats - all of which will be sold privately.

But they're fighting back, with hundreds joining a protest earlier this month. And they've adopted the slogan of the Tsoi Yuen Tsuen villagers: "No relocation and no demolition."

Lee said: "We didn't know our village was included in the blueprint in the previous two exercises. The drawings only showed the future land uses and pretty designs without our village name."

The rural committee which is supposed to represent her village is composed of indigenous landlords, whose own homes are unaffected and who will cash in when their agricultural land is developed. They did not communicate the messages to her community, she said.

The Planning Department had long refused to put a figure on the number of non-indigenous villagers who would be affected. Only in June, when the latest revision to the scheme were announced, did department officials put the figure at 1,700 households across the three areas

The department has also come under fire for failing to assess the impact on agriculture. It gave no estimate of the amount of farmland affected until last month, when an alliance of green groups protested. Officials said 22 hectares of active farmland would go, while the alliance estimated that 98 hectares would be lost. Most affected farmers are villagers, who work part time or full time in the field. Some are city dwellers who gave up white-collar jobs for an alternative lifestyle.

The villagers have help from Chu Hoi-dick, an activist who helped organise the protests in Tsoi Yuen Tsuen. He's helping the villagers of Ping Che organise themselves and take their message to the government.

"Our stance is clear and uncompromising: scrap the blueprint," Chu said. "We can't accept the top-down approach to clear decades-old rural dwellings for new developments, without any serious communication with those affected."

Chu said the new elements in the latest blueprint, such as a plan for public rental housing for non-indigenous families, were just piecemeal revisions.

"The key issue, before you talk of any development, is: to what extent should the rural area be conserved?"

But the plan is not without its supporters. Lam Kam-wai, vice-chairman of Ta Kwu Ling Rural Committee, is enthusiastic about the idea of bringing new industry to the area. He had helped pool nine hectares of land, 5 per cent of the Ping Che site, belonging to about a dozen landlords, for uses such as plantations, warehouses and recycling workshops. "I don't want to see Ping Che forever in temporary use," Lam said. "I hope we can contribute to building a new economy for the city."

But Lam is urging the government to allow non-indigenous residents to relocate their six villages just outside the boundaries of the development area.

Another source of concern surrounding the new town plan is a proposal by a think tank with close ties to the government that would see the towns become a support area for the vast swathes of land at the border being opened up for development. The One Country Two Systems Research Institute wants the border areas to be open on a visa-on-arrival basis to visitors from the mainland

The government has dismissed the visa concept as "just a researcher's idea". But that hasn't stopped many Hongkongers, already wary of the influx of visitors from across the border and its impact on urban areas, from complaining that the towns are intended to serve mainland interests rather than provide homes and economic opportunities for locals.

Dr Ng Cho-nam, a former member of the Town Planning Board and an adviser to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on his election manifesto, said he put the idea of developing malls on border land to the research institute, but said: "The visa on arrival scheme only applies to the special shopping points and not the wider border area".

And Ng says there is a way to develop the new towns and provide more housing without unduly disrupting the lives of people like Lee and her neighbours while conserving rural land for future generations. "The areas should be split up into smaller parts so that active farmland should be kept and villages should be allowed to relocate themselves as far as possible," he said.