What Tsoi Yuen villagers have suffered makes a great human interest story. Two years ago, their houses were flattened to make way for a cross-border high-speed railway link. They stayed united and vowed to rebuild a new village elsewhere. With government compensation and the help of the Heung Yee Kuk, the powerful rural affairs body, they thought their new homes would be ready by now.
Unfortunately, the script did not work out as planned. Their latest frustration is that they cannot continue with the building works near Pat Heung because the access road has been blocked after a change in ownership. This came despite assurance from the kuk that the issue of access rights had been settled. Last week emotional villagers cried for help and offered HK$500,000 to use the road. The owner refused, citing what he called the villagers' bad attitude as an obstacle to negotiation.
This is not the first time that tempers have flared over land use and access rights in rural area. It has to be asked why houses are allowed to be built without road access in the first place. Such disputes are unthinkable in an urban context. Clear rules on urban planning and administration means every development project is well supervised and delivered. But as you move further north, the rule of law appears to fade. Poor government supervision and enforcement means settlements can shoot up here and there without planning. This can result in confusing land ownership and rights.
There are welcome signs that both sides are returning to the negotiating table, after the Tsoi Yuen villagers opted for a more conciliatory approach and yesterday apologised on radio for their attitude. It is regrettable that rural leaders take pride in defending what they see it as the indigenous people's unique way of doing things. Hong Kong has long moved away from a feudalistic society where peasants had to bow and beg for favours from the rich and powerful. Outdated customs and practices are to be discarded rather than jealously guarded.