Unity they call it. The Heung Yee Kuk is now demanding its pound of flesh from chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying. It's payback time for its eleventh-hour switch from backing Henry Tang Ying-yen to supporting Leung as the city's new mayor. Kingpins, powerbrokers and underworld godfathers impose hefty price tags all the time, but it's usually done with more finesse. That kuk chief Lau Wong-fat practically called a press conference last week to state his demand shows the extent to which the largest rural representative body holds the government and the rest of Hong Kong in contempt.
Lau's demand? A blanket amnesty on all illegally built structures in village houses across the entire New Territories, as long as they don't pose an immediate physical danger. Wow, the man has chutzpah! He has warned the government not to draw 'first blood', effectively telling the government not to send in demolition squads and anti-riot police.
Leung and the next administration are caught in a bind. His government has no stomach for a fight. But he promised a tough line on dismantling the illegal structures during his chief executive campaign. And Development Bureau chief Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor - widely tipped to take up a top post in his government, perhaps even as the next chief secretary - has invested so much political capital in the crackdown that any backing off would mean a serious loss of face. Worse, agreeing to the kuk's demand would undermine the rule of law itself. As Leung said during his campaign, illegal structures or not, there is only one law for all of Hong Kong. How can the building authority enforce orders against illegal structures in urban areas if such a blatant double standard exists?
By throwing down the gauntlet, the kuk is sending another message. If they won't give an inch on the illegal structures, they will not compromise on the far more important 'small house' issue. By guaranteeing every male village descendant the right to build a three-storey house, this corrosive colonial-era policy has made multimillionaires of many villagers. But land is running out. Will Leung have the guts to end it? Probably not.