The political genius of Hong Kong rural kingpin Lau Wong-fat
This week sees the retirement of Lau Wong-fat as rural kingpin and the succession by his son, Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, as chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk.
A Lau dynasty has been cemented, and we have to ask who benefits most. Lau Jnr ran unopposed, as did his two deputies, Daniel Lam Wai-keung and Cheung Hok-ming. Both are loyalists to Lau the elder. This means, as the Chinese saying goes, the soup's been changed but not the underlying medicine. It's effectively the same special interests group being represented by this new/old triumvirate, with Lau Snr hovering above them.
In other words, if we are to modernise the kuk and make it accountable to the public, not just to special rural interests, change will have to come from outside, not from within. The kuk is often described as the rural body that represents the interests of the indigenous population in the New Territories. A better way to look at it is as a property organisation whose foundation is built on the so-called small house policy of the government. This enables the indigenous male line to claim a house in their villages without a time limit.
To appreciate the power, prestige and political genius of Lau Snr, you have to understand that it was he who almost singlehandedly turned what was a temporary administrative housing policy under the Brits dating back to the late 1960s into an ancient rural right. He thereby spearheaded in Hong Kong one of the greatest transfers of property-based wealth from the urban to the rural areas, as urbanisation was either halted or hindered in the New Territories.
He did this first by making sure it was written that way in the Basic Law, and then used the kuk's power base in the legislative and executive councils to ally with successive governments.
Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, there has almost universally been a transfer of wealth - primarily food and land - from the peasant to the urbanite. The kuk is one of those rare instances where this exploitative process was reversed, to the detriment of Hong Kong as a whole. Lau Jnr is likely to use the same combination of legal argument and power play to further the kuk's interests, and our weak government is unlikely to challenge it.