Lau Wong-fat – master politician who has left big shoes to fill
Without a towering figure like Lau, the Heung Yee Kuk is likely to fragment into rival power bases, making it even more difficult for the government to tackle rural development and land rights
Love him or hate him, the passing of Lau Wong-fat marks the end of an era. He made protecting the special interests of villagers in the New Territories, the largest landmass in Hong Kong, his lifelong goal. In this, he was singularly successful. Whether his success worked to the benefit or detriment of the city as a whole is a different question.
Wong never went to university and was unencumbered by any political ideology. As a lawmaker, Executive Council member and troubleshooter on all things rural, his native intelligence and disarmingly good manners made him arguably the most astute and effective local-born politician the city had ever seen. He was the go-to guy for the city’s former British colonial masters, the post-handover Chinese overlords, and local officials whenever there was rural trouble. Even old-school pan-democrats have a good word to say about him, though their political agendas more often clashed than not.
Lau’s politics was pure pragmatism. Its main agenda was focused on the land development and property rights of the New Territories, in which he built his long career, great wealth and power base from the time he was a young village leader to his taking over the Heung Yee Kuk – which notionally represents all the registered villages in the New Territories – from 1980 until his retirement in 2015. He was a kingmaker sitting on the Election Committee for the chief executive.
In 1985, he was appointed to the committee that drafted the city’s post-handover constitution, the Basic Law. His singular achievement, if we could call it that, was Article 40, which provides special protection for “the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories”.
At a single stroke, a 1972 administrative housing measure for male villagers – the so-called small-house policy – was turned into a traditional land right. While it enriches generations of villagers, it encourages the unauthorised occupation of public land and dodgy land deals. It also makes urbanisation planning difficult, causing large swathes of the New Territories to remain underdeveloped.
But, to be fair, Lau was instrumental in overcoming rural resistance to new town developments in places such as Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tuen Mun, from the 1970s onward.
Without a towering figure like Lau, the kuk is likely to fragment into rival power bases, making it even more difficult for the government to tackle rural development and land rights.