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

Newly elected lawmaker Eddie Chu’s crusade against unfair land use has revived calls for reform of the Heung Yee Kuk, the organisation that for decades has called the shots in the New Territories

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2016, 6:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:33pm

The Heung Yee Kuk, which marks its 90th anniversary this year, has had its share of ups and downs. The powerful rural affairs body is facing loud calls for reform after controversial claims by legislator-elect Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who said he had received death threats because of his crusade against what he sees as the unfair use of land in the New Territories. The activist accuses the kuk of being the source of many problems in rural development. But how did the kuk acquire such a grip on rural politics in the first place? And what are the challenges it faces under a new leader and a changing political dynamic in Hong Kong?

History of the Heung Yee Kuk

“Those who think the kuk is a club for uneducated but rich tribespeople should first have an understanding of the history of the New Territories before they make criticisms,” argued Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, director of the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre.

The Heung Yee Kuk: how a village governing body became an empire of rural leaders

In a sense, Sit said, the history of the kuk was the history of the administration of the New Territories.

Rural leaders used to be the sole power figures in villages. But the old ways of rural politics had to give way with the British takeover in 1898 after the Second Convention of Peking, under which the New Territories were “leased” from the feudal Qing dynasty for 99 years.

The colonial government recognised the New Territories’ residents as a special class of citizens. Rural leaders were given a free hand to manage village affairs so long as things did not turn too unmanageable or ugly.

In 1924 rural leaders set up a protest group called the Lease Zone Agricultural, Industry and Commercial Study, which convinced the government to drop a plan to raise taxes in the New Territories.

The group was renamed the Heung Yee Kuk two years later, evolving into a body representing rural interests. Over the years, the government turned to the kuk for advice on village affairs.

But the development boom of Hong Kong in the 1950s split kuk leaders. Those who owned land began to side with the government and supported more developments, instead of championing the rights of villagers.

In what is now known as the “Heung Yee Kuk incident”, in 1957 a group of pro-government village leaders staged a coup and ousted the anti-development bloc to take control of the kuk in an election.

Before 1972, villagers could build houses on their land as they liked. No application was needed
Bowie Hau Chi-keung, Sheung Shui rural committee chairman

Two years later, the government came up with the Heung Yee Kuk Ordinance, which strengthened pro-government support within the kuk by stipulating that justices of the peace and chairmen of rural committees became ex-officio kuk members.

The ordinance did not change the kuk’s advisory role, but could indirectly ensure that government development plans would not run up against strong opposition.

Things went smoothly until 1972 when villagers were up in arms over a government proposal to freeze development in the New Territories. This meant that villagers could no longer build houses for their growing families.

Among the concessions made by the government was the so-called small house policy (see below).

While others see the small house policy as a privilege unfairly designed exclusively for rural people, Bowie Hau Chi-keung, Sheung Shui rural committee chairman, said the policy imposed “unfair restrictions” on villagers. “Before 1972, villagers could build houses on their land as they liked. No application was needed,” Hau said.

With the development of a representative government by the colonial administration and the Sino-British talks on Hong Kong’s future in the 1980s, rural leaders became more involved in local politics.

Rural committee chiefs were given seats in then district boards and the kuk chairman and vice-chairmen were ex-officio members of the now-defunct regional council.

In 1985, then-kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat was appointed by Beijing to the Basic Law Drafting Committee, the panel that drafted Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution.

Lau managed to convince the Beijing authorities to include an article in the Basic Law that guaranteed “the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories shall be protected”.

(Indigenous villagers are those who can trace their male ancestry back to 1898.)

Rural politics were given another facelift in the 1990s. In 1993, the kuk endorsed a reform of the all-male village election tradition, allowing women to vote and run for office as village representatives.

In 1994 the New Territories Land (Exemption) Ordinance, was passed, allowing women the right to inherit property.

In 2002 came the so-called dual-chief system, reversing the tradition that only indigenous villagers were entitled to vote for their village heads. There is also a non-indigenous resident village head, but some traditional duties like confirming the status of an indigenous resident remain the sole authority of the indigenous village head.

Power of the Heung Yee Kuk

Once an authoritative voice representing rural communities, the kuk suffered a decline in its political influence in 1982 when the government introduced the district board system.

Eight district boards were set up in the New Territories. While they did not replace the kuk, they were more representative in that they were not only represented by indigenous villagers, but also ordinary residents living in the New Territories.

The system has evolved into district councils today. But the kuk has not become irrelevant. Under the present system, the indigenous head of a village, who is directly elected by villagers, is given a seat on the district’s rural committee.

A rural committee chairman, elected among village heads, is given a seat in the district council and will also become an ex-officio member of the kuk.

The kuk also has a seat in the Legislative Council, and it takes up 26 seats in the 1,200-member Election Committee that is tasked with choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive.

The kuk chairman and vice-chairmen are elected by kuk members. But the chairmanship for the past 36 years has been in the hands of the Lau family – influential landlords in the western New Territories. Lau Wong-fat, commonly known as Uncle Fat and “King of the New Territories”, held the post for 35 years. The kuk is now led by his son, Kenneth Lau Ip-keung.

After the handover, the kuk remained part of the pro-establishment political force, playing a key role in mobilising villagers to support candidates from pro-Beijing political parties.

But in recent years, complaints surfaced among some kuk members that their voices had been ignored and their interests scarified by the government and fellow pro-government parties. One commonly cited bugbear is the small house policy.

In June last year the kuk agreed in a meeting that the rural community should seek to gain a bigger influence in politics, and some rural leaders also came up with a plan to form a political party.

But the party never came into existence, as rural leaders reportedly failed to get the green light from Beijing.

Small house policy

The small house policy was introduced in 1972 when new towns were encroaching into rural areas. It has become a festering source of tension between the kuk and the government and between rural residents and urbanites.

A common complaint is that the policy has been abused by landlords and developers and encourages profiteering.

Under the policy, each male indigenous villager, or “ding”, is entitled to the “ding” right when he reaches 18, which is to build a three-storey house of 700 sq ft per floor on ancestral or government land bought at a discount.

But increasingly, villagers no longer build and live in the small houses themselves.

Heung Yee Kuk elders clash over jailed Hong Kong villagers

In a 2015 court case, 11 villagers were sentenced to two to three years in jail for having sold their “ding” right to a developer and obtained HK$4.3 million in rewards. The developer used their names to apply to the Lands Department to build houses, concealing the deals signed by villagers to transfer the land.

This way, it could benefit by sidestepping the cost and normal procedure for building on village land.

The ruling shocked the kuk, which is appealing to overturn it, arguing that the “ding” right is part of their traditional interests protected by the Basic Law. But calls for the policy to be scrapped continue to grow.

The insatiable demand for small houses is also adding to the land shortage problem. Attempts by previous administrations to review the policy, including a proposal to build multi-storey small houses, failed. The current government is tackling the problem by limiting grants of new land for small houses, which has irked villagers.

Apart from the covert deals over small houses, some landlords and rural leaders are often blamed by environmentalists for degrading village land and farmland. The media have reported on how they turned a blind eye to the illegal dumping of construction waste on their land.

The greens said this kind of “destroy first, build later” approach enabled landlords to get land rezoning approval for development more easily with the ecological value of the site thus degraded.

Post-Uncle Fat Heung Yee Kuk

While many rural leaders try to protect the status quo, observers say the kuk’s future will hinge on Kenneth Lau’s ability to steer it to deal with a seemingly more impatient Beijing government.

A kuk source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “Kenneth Lau is having a hard time. He is too green and, unlike his father, he lacks charisma.

“Some kuk leaders do not wholeheartedly support him. And he does not seem to be bold enough to confront Beijing, probably because he has no card to play.”

The younger Lau, 50, is assisted by two rural elders – Cheung Hok-ming, 64, and Daniel Lam Wai-keung, 67. Cheung is also a member of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s rural residents body Heung Yee Kuk vows to flex its political muscle if voice ignored

Politically, the younger Lau is a member of the Business and Professionals Alliance, of which his father is an honorary chairman. He was appointed a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 2013 after Uncle Fat was not reappointed.

A person familiar with political dynamics in the New Territories said the kuk was losing its political clout because it was difficult to get competent indigenous villagers with a good public image to represent the kuk.

The source also said Beijing was of the view that the kuk was not “loyal” enough on some issues.

So it has been grooming solicitor Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, who is an indigenous villager of Tuen Mun. “Beijing wants some people it can fully control to play a bigger role in New Territories’ affairs,” the source said.

Ho won a seat in the recent Legislative Council elections, with 35,657 votes in the New Territories West constituency.

In June, the kuk paid a visit to Beijing – its first official trip to the capital since 2008. After a meeting with the director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya, the younger Lau quoted Wang as saying that they should adopt “new thinking” to co-operate with the government.

Dr Bruce Kwong Kam-kwan, a co-investigator at the Hong Kong Transition Project – a research centre at Baptist University, said: “The writing is on the wall. Beijing gets impatient and asks the kuk people to play the role of serving the government and the pro-establishment camp.”