The development chief's call to end the controversial small-house policy has sparked a public debate in which indigenous villagers accused Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor of stirring up a hornets' nest.
Shap Pat Heung Rural Committee chairman Leung Fuk-yuen said: 'Lam is asking for a fight. Our traditional right is protected by the Basic Law.'
Lam, widely tipped to be the next chief secretary, called for the policy to be scrapped in an interview in yesterday's South China Morning Post. She revealed that she had proposed to rural power brokers the Heung Yee Kuk that the policy end in 2029.
Under the policy, male indigenous villagers gain the right at age 18 to build a three-storey house near their ancestral home. The policy has been in effect since 1972, but villagers argue that it should remain until at least 2047, in keeping with the Basic Law's promise of an unchanged way of life for 50 years.
Lam suggested that it would be feasible to draw the line at 2029 - meaning the last villagers to benefit would be those born in that year and who would reach 18 by the end of the 50-year period.
Lam said she had hoped to review the policy in her term but the government had not been ready to tackle it.
'I really hope the matter will be handled seriously and solemnly through detailed research, public discussion and negotiation with the Heung Yee Kuk,' she said. 'We can't say the problem does not exist.'
But her proposal was attacked by rural representatives and villagers, some of whom have waited decades for houses due to limited land.
'Very few male villagers can get small houses because there is not enough land in the same village,' said Wong Yuen-fat, a 76-year-old indigenous villager in Fuk Hing Tsuen, Yuen Long. 'But still, the government should not deprive us of this right.'
Wong has six sons, all of them entitled to small houses. They applied in the 1970s but only the eldest two have been granted a house.
'We have lived in the village for countless generations and families live close to each other. Even after marriage, people want to live near their parents in the same village.'
A 74-year-old in the same village who declined to be named said insufficient land should not be an excuse for ending the policy. He criticised the government for selling land to the developers on one hand while telling them the land available could not satisfy their infinite demands.
'People in urban areas can have buildings of more than 30 storeys. Why can our small houses only be three storeys?' asked Kwok Shek-kwai, 60, of Tai Ho Tsuen on Lantau Island. 'It is unfair to us. Our right to small houses is rooted in history.'
But Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said the right to a small house should not be seen as a traditional one protected by law - the policy could be reviewed at any time.
This view was echoed by Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, who said the government had a legal basis to review the policy.
But Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee of the New People's Party urged Lam to explain how her plan could be executed. 'Is it feasible to end it? I hope she is not trying to boost her popularity by making such statements.'