Kuk need more than village clout to form a political party, members say
Amid internal rifts and rows with the government, the rural lobby group is being urged to rethink its public appeal before forming political party
Despite being a formidable force as a rural lobby group, the Heung Yee Kuk will need support beyond its power base in the indigenous villages if it is serious about wanting to form a political party, some members say.
With the group split over the idea, questions remain over whether its proponents are serious or are just talking tough to rattle a government with which they have grown disillusioned.
At the heart of the debate is whether the kuk should form its own party or continue to partner allied parties. Some fear that a new party would further divide the Beijing-loyalist camp.
The poor performance of Legislative Council candidates fielded by the kuk in the past has also raised doubts about the wisdom of such action.
Kuk executive committee member Leung Wo-ping - who last month told Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po that "all 27 rural committees of the Heung Yee Kuk are planning to wrestle with the government" - is hopeful about the plan.
But he noted that a new party would need support beyond indigenous villagers. "Our scope is not confined to indigenous residents. Non-indigenous residents may also join."
He also said forming a party did not necessarily rule out partnerships with other parties.
"We are still exploring the idea and are open to different possibilities," he said. "We may still partner with other political parties should we set up our own."
The kuk, led by chairman Lau Wong-fat, also faces competition from a rising force, the New Territories Concern Group.
If the concern group were to field candidates in upcoming elections, any contender supported by the kuk - or a possible new party - would have to compete for villagers' support.
Ping Shan Rural Committee chairman Tsang Shu-wo, the concern group's vice-chairman, said the kuk's plan to form a party would test whether people in the New Territories were united, adding: "If they were, then they would have got a lot of votes and won [in elections] already.
"If people are not united, then it is useless to form a party."
As the statutory body representing indigenous New Territories residents' interests, the kuk is privileged with designated political positions on the Election Committee, the Legislative Council and district councils, and has been regarded as one of the most powerful bodies in the city.
Yet a number of rows with the Leung Chun-ying administration; a lack of public sympathy; and internal rifts have prompted the kuk to rethink how to unite and defend its interests.
There have been clashes over the failure of the administration to discuss the future of the small-house policy; government plans to expand the Tuen Mun landfills and the incorporation of enclaves into country parks.
Other battlegrounds include unauthorised structures on rural houses and arguments over compensation for villagers whose homes stand in the way of development plans. An Ombudsman investigation into alleged abuse of indigenous villagers' burial grounds has also triggered concerns within the kuk.
Amid such battles, sentiment against the rural community has grown among the wider public. Villagers blocked the route to Tai Long Sai Wan - first during the Oxfam Trailwalker event and then on all weekdays in an effort to bar hikers - in protest against a plan to incorporate the enclave into a country park.
It was against this background that the idea of setting up a political party was raised among kuk members reviewing electoral strategies to seek more power.
The kuk is guaranteed a functional constituency seat on Legco, and all rural committee chairmen are ex-officio members of district councils.
With an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 indigenous residents registered to vote in the New Territories, the kuk has a significant electorate to draw upon, especially when it partners other pro-Beijing political groups.
Since 2000, kuk members have stood for Legco on slates with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the New Territories Association of Societies. It also co-operated with the pro-business Liberal Party when Lau was a member of it. In 1998, a group called the New Territories Alliance, formed by indigenous residents, contested the Legco election with the kuk's support. All of its candidates lost.
More recently, Tuen Mun Rural Committee chairman Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, non-indigenous rural leader Chan Keung, and Yau Wing-kwong, co-opted councillor to the kuk, stood separately in the 2012 Legco poll and were all defeated.
Kuk officials are split over whether to establish a party.
While Leung Wo-ping and vice-chairman Daniel Lam Wai-keung have expressed support for the initiative, Lau and a vice-chairman Cheung Hok-ming have been more cautious.
Cheung said the kuk was reviewing its electoral strategies, but that forming a party was only one option.
He stressed that apart from Legco and district council representation, the review would also consider participation in the National People's Congress elections.
Kuk's enduring power arose from 1898 deal with the British
The Heung Yee Kuk was founded in the mid-1920s and is one of the oldest power bases in Hong Kong. The kuk is an umbrella group of 27 rural committees representing all eight districts in the New Territories, including the outlying islands. It became a statutory body in 1959. In recognition of the kuk's influence, chairmen of its rural committees are ex officio members of the corresponding district councils. The kuk's enduring power has much to do with the way the New Territories came to be part of British Hong Kong. After the Qing dynasty leased the "New Territories" - then the southern part of Xinan county, which is now roughly modern-day Shenzhen - to Britain in 1898, indigenous villagers led by leaders of the great clans staged an armed struggle the following year to resist the "British barbarians". The rebellion was suppressed by the British Army as the villagers did not have the support of the Chinese government. Amid the 1899 turmoil, Hong Kong governor Henry Blake issued a proclamation in Chinese pledging to safeguard the land and commercial interests of all inhabitants and not to interfere with their customs and use of the land. The colonial government gradually forged an alliance with rural leaders to maintain stability.