Let Hong Kong’s courts decide on the small-house policy
A call for the central government to intervene with an interpretation of the Basic Law to uphold the privilege must be strongly resisted
The anniversary of former Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat’s death was a good occasion for supporters to gather and pay tribute to the rural kingpin. But it made headlines for the wrong reasons when a 1,000-strong session last week turned into a forum for airing grievances over a looming court battle involving a much-criticised policy that gives villagers land to build houses. More disturbingly, the central government was urged to intervene with an interpretation of the Basic Law to uphold such privilege, a call that must be strongly resisted.
In question is the small-house, or ding uk, scheme. Introduced by the colonial government in the 1970s as an interim fix for rural housing, the policy that allows all males born of indigenous origin to build a three-storey villa, with a maximum floor area of 2,100 sq ft, has long been seen as discriminatory and unfair to the rest in society. But rural villagers are adamant that the policy forms part of their so-called traditional rights that are protected by Article 40 of the Basic Law. A judicial review is due before the city’s courts in December.
There is no reason why the dispute cannot be resolved within our judicial system. Even though the final interpretation power of the Basic Law rests with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Hong Kong’s courts have been empowered to rule on provisions which are within the limits of the city’s high degree of autonomy. The relevant provision does not specify the coverage of the traditional rights. But the small-house policy is no doubt an internal affair. It is clearly up to the city’s court to determine whether the housing scheme forms part of the protected rights.
The villagers’ appeal would indeed put Beijing into a difficult position. Given the political sensitivity of the case and the implications on judicial independence, an interpretation of the Basic Law outside the local courts is not a step to be taken lightly. The impact would be serious if Beijing ruled in favour of the villagers. It cannot possibly discard public interest to uphold a colonial legacy that is essentially unfair, unjustified and unsustainable.
The villagers’ case becomes even weaker in today’s housing context. It makes no sense to keep outdated privileges for a certain sector when the public has been challenged to make difficult choices to help boost land supply for affordable housing. With some 224 hectares of land already used to build more than 42,100 villas, the scheme simply cannot go on.
The rural affairs body has been an important political force in the city and has contributed to a smooth reunification with the country. But it is important that it moves with the times. It would do well for the villagers to go beyond sectoral interests for the public good.