• Fri
  • Nov 28, 2014
  • Updated: 5:16am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 2:47am

Who can lead on land policy?

Philip Bowring wonders whether anyone in government has a real grasp of the housing mess, or the strength of character to stand up to the likes of rural strongman Lau Wong-fat


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

Who is the most influential person in Hong Kong? It is no longer Li Ka-shing. It is certainly not Leung Chun-ying. Nor is it yet the head of the liaison office. Perhaps it is legislative councillor and former Executive Council member Lau Wong-fat, head of the Heung Yee Kuk since 1980.

The story of how the now 76-year-old Tuen Mun villager came to such power - and land-owning wealth - could really only be told in a novel. But what is abundantly clear is that Lau, while representing a small minority of the actual residents of the New Territories, has manipulated government policies to the benefit of his small number of constituents on the single most important issue facing the government: land use.

So do not take lightly Lau's endorsement of considering using country parks for new development. At the same time, he has also changed tack and now suggests that the village house policy for sons of so-called indigenous villagers could be amended to allow high-rise flats rather than three-storey houses.

The kuk and its component rural committees has long seemed to have a veto not just over government policies in the New Territories but over laws against brazen misuse of allegedly agricultural land. Illegal structures, which in the urban area would quickly bring action by the Buildings Department, are ignored on a grand scale.

Lau's recent comments on the country parks and small house system seem designed to divert attention from the reality of Hong Kong's land misuse. As has been pointed out, 33 per cent of Hong Kong is neither urban nor country park, nor even golf courses, but a messy mixture of scrub and land supposedly agricultural but in practice often used for old car dumps, container storage and the like.

Lau's aim in now accepting, after years of rejecting, high-rise "village houses" appears aimed to fend off any attempt to abolish a system which is a major cause of shortage of development land. Even Lau now recognises that there is not enough land in all of Hong Kong to meet the open-ended commitment to the sons of so-called indigenous male villagers. Invented in 1972 as a short-term bribe to villages not to stand in the way of new town development, a myth of "ancestral rights" has been built around it, to the vast profit of a few and the expense of the rest of Hong Kong.

Not that one can blame Lau for other aspects of the land policy mess. Apparent shortages of development land also reflect the years under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen of keeping supply tight and viewing high prices as beneficial, which, of course, they are to the multiple-property-owning senior bureaucrats. Housing construction has been inadequate in recent years thanks to a policy of maximising premiums on land conversions. But that is no reason now to be panicked into moves promoted by this or that vested interest.

The issue of subdivision of apartments and industrial units - illegal, but now the law is ignored for being inconvenient - does not only indicate an overall shortage of housing. It also reflects the distance and travel costs of much new housing from jobs. In turn, that partly reflects the sale of inner-city land to the highest bidder, driving out middle- and low-income households or using the Urban Renewal Authority to replace cheap tenements and small shops with luxury blocks and big-name retailers.

In theory, it would be best to let market forces rule. But, in practice, this is not possible in Hong Kong at present because of the huge income gaps that exist and the unwillingness of government to consider the desirability of sustained lower prices for land generally, which would bring more affordability for more people. You can be sure that if prices tumble because interest rates rise, the government will, as in 1999, reverse course on land provision to protect existing owners and bank interests, and its own revenues.

As it is, prices and policies provide a huge implicit subsidy to older owners (like myself) and inheritors at the expense of the young and the non-property-owning old. Housing problems are as much a function of poor distribution as overall shortage.

Household size has also been falling steadily and may continue to do so as birth rates remain low and more old people move from flats to homes for the elderly. Estimates for future population also continue to be greatly exaggerated in official projections and are red meat for the engineering consultancies and construction companies that work with the big-spending infrastructure departments.

What is missing in all this is not just affordable housing. It is a sense of whether anyone in government has an overall grasp of the issue and whether they are capable of devising and pushing through a policy which treats Hong Kong as one society, which stands up to entrenched interests and can clearly enunciate its policies to the public.

In principle, Leung should, given his professional experience, be in a position to do so. In practice, he is being pushed here and there by behind-the-scenes politics, led into minefields by an incompetent development minister, and resorting to silly short-term measures - the tax on non-resident buyers. If he is a leader, now is the time to be seen to be in charge of this issue.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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Article 40 of the Basic Law reads: The lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the "New Territories" shall be protected by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The Heung Yee **** managed to get this included and claims that it protects the Small House Policy which is utter nonsense.
Lawful traditional rights: Before the British came, they had no rights. The British gave them land and property rights.
They have a traditional right to occupy, repair or renovate a house and farm etc. The SHP merely administratively ENHANCES that right and is NOT a right in itself.
Lawful traditional interests: farming, fishing, ceremonies, festivals etc.
Indigenous: originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country i.e. the NT.
Inhabitants: a person or who inhabits a place, especially as a permanent resident i.e. lives in the NT and not Glasgow or Brisbane.
So can the government explain why it is doing nothing about a policy which is slowly but surely destroying the village enclaves within our country parks and rural areas of the NT and is continuing to discriminate against all HK females over the age of 18 and 95% of their male counterparts, most of whom are forced to remain single and live with their parents into their 30s? Utter lunacy.
It's because of greedy crooks like this Mr. Lau that Hong Kong is going downhill so fast. He doesn't care about anything but himself and his 'face' with the male villagers...
Hong Kong’s prosperity is primitively relying on land use. It is like farming that without a piece of land to farm on a harvest can’t be possible. In fact, much of internal economy in mainland like Hong Kong makes land use a center piece of human activity and politic. Again, like Hong Kong and even more so building residential buildings are like planting crops in the field for harvesting for profits. I believe Chinese culture is heavily influenced by its success in agriculture. Chinese posses hence instinct for their love for land which not only a source of food but wealth as well especially nowadays with property development and property owning. No coincidence that cooling polices must be instituted both in mainland and Hong Kong when the harvest from the land both can’t feed equally among all.
It is no surprise in Hong Kong in the battle for land for housing after decades of practice, the apparent winner as this article by Philip Bowring rightly implying belongs to Lau Wong-fat who has a solid background being a rural resident in farmland. Without a change of property culture, Hong Kong is stuck with Lau that increasing making clear to all the rest of us.
Bowring writes a extremely interesting and well observed article. The "Kuks" weald too much power in post colonial Hong Kong. The Brits pandered to them in the day to keep the peace, but the kuks are now in a position of power that they do not deserve and which is intrinsically unfair. They are unaccountable and its debatable who is actually indigenous and who went to Hong Kong from mainland China. Unfortunately, most Hong Kong people are not known for their creativity or good taste, but they are known around the world and especially in northern China for being "狡猾的", having a love for toilet tiles and bad grouting, and prone to corruption and lining their pockets. Just look at the abomination of a bodge job along the entire Hong Kong harbor front. Only the Hong Kong government and their developer 哥们儿 could wreck one of the most iconic harbors in the world. How about the huge "inside out" pink public toilet blighting the TST harbor front? Now these "老头子" are considering building on the only remaining asset Hong Kong has-- its beautiful and precious country parks. The ICAC should investigate the officials promoting development in these parks otherwise in a few decades or so the whole of Hong Kong will look like an end to end landscape of hideous shopping malls and Kowloon Walled City like residential purgatory--with bad grouting, of course. There are alternative solutions to the housing shortage problem and this requires some imaginative thinking and strong leadership.
The SHP should be repealed immediately on the basis of gender discrimination if nothing else.
It is absolutely ludicrous for male offspring of former residents from the N T to have this 'right' to the Nth generation. Females by the way are excluded. These sons and grandsons are, on the whole, not Hong Kong born, and must return to HK every 3 years to validate their permanent ID cards. It's an insane system and must be abolished - the Basic Law must be amended.
The Basic Law does not need amending as the SHP is not protected by Article 40 as the HYK and Fat Lau would have us believe.
It's quite tiring to always read about illegal structures on village houses .... could you guys please just for once write about illegal structures on so called villa houses in the New Territories ?
I have jet to see ONE of those without illegal structures.
Another Option would be to report about those thousands of enclosed balconies in older public housing estates which are under the Governments supervision / management ....
The colonial government might have good intention by sustaining and respecting Chinese culture, never mind about indigenous culture. Or it might be a way to keep peace in urban area. In hindsight it is all much ado about a lot troubles nowadays. God helps to undo. The moment is here where urban and rural must intersect – urban runs out of land finally and farmlands are stuffed with garbage 'anticipatingly'. It’s time to buy and sell to exact profits beyond imagination. Go and ask Lau if I am at least half right?
Lau Wong Fat


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