Heung Yee Kuk must move with the times
Few institutions have a reputation as divided as that of the rural affairs body Heung Yee Kuk. To indigenous villagers, it is the guardian of traditional rights and customs. To Beijing and the Hong Kong government, it is a political ally and a force of stability. But to many others, it is the synonym of entrenched privilege, unequal political representation and an outdated legacy.
The 90-year-old kuk was turned into a statutory body in the late 1950s, advising the colonial government on social and economic development "in the interest of the welfare and prosperity of the New Territories people". Over the years, it evolved into a powerful house of rural elites under the leadership of patriarch Lau Wong-fat. Today, the kuk has a presence in all tiers of political structure, ranging from rural committees and district councils to the legislature and the chief executive's cabinet. It was also recognised by Beijing as a stabilising force before and after the handover in the city, with indigenous villagers' rights protected by the Basic Law.
Notwithstanding its historical significance and contribution, the kuk often becomes the target of criticism, with many saying its political influence is unjustifiably extensive. It can be argued that as the distinction between the urban area and the New Territories has become increasingly blurred, and that the 18 district councils have covered all parts of the city, there is no need for a separate New Territories advisory body. Equally questionable are the exclusive land rights and privileges enjoyed by villagers, who gain the special status as indigenous residents because their ancestors were already living in the New Territories before the British arrived. The differential treatment given to villagers owes much to the way the British took over and administered the land. The kuk has repeatedly cited the constitutional safeguards to defend what they see as traditional rights, and will no doubt continue to do so. But the truth is that after the reunification, the New Territories is not different from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island under 'one country'. It has to be asked whether the privileges are still justified.
A council set up in the colonial era to represent indigenous interests in an underdeveloped territory is bound to look out of place in a modern city today. This is not helped when the helm is passed from father to son in an uncontested election. Whether the kuk will turn over a new leaf under the leadership of Kenneth Lau Ip-keung remains to be seen, but there is growing pressure for the body to move ahead with the times.