Hong Kong's rural committees must serve all residents, not just indigenous villagers

David Newbery says the interests of all homeowners and the common good are unfairly neglected

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 May, 2015, 11:38am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 11:19am

The rural representative elections took place in the New Territories in January this year. Since 2003, there have been two elected positions for each village - the indigenous village representative, elected by descendants of families which lived in the village in 1898, and the resident village representative, elected by permanent Hong Kong identity card holders who live in the village. These elections are controlled by the Rural Representative Election Ordinance, and the representatives are elected to serve on a rural committee, of which there are 27.

The committees are influential and are used by the government to assess village sentiment; the chair of each committee serves on the Heung Yee Kuk and is an ex officio member of the relevant district council. Crucially, the committees fulfil a pivotal role in the administration of the small house policy.

So, how do these committees work? Recently, a registered elector wrote to the Home Affairs Bureau asking for details of the meetings of the rural committee serving his village. The reply from the district office was that the dealings of the rural committees were "not open to public for enquiries". It transpires that that the committees are merely registered societies, with no requirement to be transparent, or even to publish a constitution.

So, although members are elected, there is no requirement for the representatives to be accountable to their electorate or anyone else - not even the Home Affairs Bureau knows what goes on at the meetings. Although the process of electing members is controlled by the ordinance, the rural committees themselves are uncontrolled. They are funded by the taxpayer - members receive a small stipend - with no requirement to account for this money.

What do the committees see as their role? When the outline zoning plan was being drawn up for the Hoi Ha enclave, the Sai Kung North Rural Committee's only comment was that more land should be set aside for building small houses.

The large majority of the actual residents of Hoi Ha - 35 people - wrote to the rural committee asking that it should also express residents' concerns over sewage facilities, parking and other infrastructure problems, should the village be increased significantly in size. The reply made it clear that non-indigenous villagers were, and always would be, "outsiders", and that "the primary aim of the rural committee is to look after the traditional interest of the indigenous villagers, particularly to safeguard their traditional rights on village houses".

The rural committee also asserted that this "right" to build a village house was absolute, irrespective of where the indigenous villager lived.

So, rural committees exist primarily to safeguard the interests of indigenous villagers, most of whom do not live in the village, and representing the views of "outsiders", who may own property and have lived in the village for decades, is not part of their remit. Yet, the ordinance makes it clear that resident representatives should not deal with the rights and interests of indigenous villagers. Surely, those representatives, who now make up 50 per cent of the committees, should be speaking for all village residents, including "outsiders".

The rural committees were set up during the Japanese occupation for "village heads". This worked well when village heads lived in their village and were in daily contact with the residents, all of whom were indigenous.

However, with the advent of the small house policy in 1972, the demographics of villages changed; the village head often moved away and, in many villages, the non-indigenous population began to outnumber the indigenous.

For this reason, the government introduced the resident representative in 2003 - to serve village residents. However, although the ordinance was gazetted to control the election processes, no changes were made to the status of the rural committees, which continue to operate without regulation and without accountability to the electorate or taxpayers.

The solutions to this unsatisfactory situation are easy. In the short term, the committees should publish agendas and minutes of meetings; the meetings should be open to the public and audio recordings made. In the long term, rural committees should be controlled by legislation and their responsibilities to represent the residents of villages, as well as non-resident indigenous villagers, should be clearly defined.

The present situation, where rural committees are run so that the indigenous villager diaspora may make money out of the small house policy, irrespective of the social and environmental damage this might cause to the village, must be replaced with one where the committees represent equally the wishes and views of the people who actually live in the villages as well as serving the cultural needs of indigenous villagers.

David Newbery is co-founder of Friends of Hoi Ha, an environmental advocacy group, which recently joined the Save Our Country Parks Alliance