A golfer plays at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling in February 2019. Photo: Winson Wong
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

Rich-poor debate over Hong Kong golf course puts government in a bind

  • As the Hong Kong Golf Club steps up lobbying efforts to preserve the Fanling course, officials appear divided over the plan to build public housing on the site
  • But a U-turn now would seem to put the government on the side of a privileged few over the thousands in urgent need of affordable homes
The ongoing debate over plans to develop part of the Fanling golf course into 12,000 homes for around 33,600 people by 2029 raises more than just a land supply issue.
At a marathon meeting on August 8, the Advisory Council on the Environment failed to reach a consensus on whether it would approve the environment impact assessment report on building homes on part of the 172-hectare golf course.
It has since been revealed that council members and other members of the city’s political elite were approached by the Hong Kong Golf Club, which leases the Fanling site. The club is, of course, free to reach out to anyone it wishes and put its powers of persuasion to the test. From what we have seen so far, its efforts are paying off.
But for the government, this spells trouble on many fronts. The club’s lobbying is a striking display of this city’s wealth and power disparity. Will the government side with the elite, whose privilege seems to include having access to space, fresh air, recreational facilities and people with power? Or will official visits to subdivided homes and exercises aimed at understanding intergenerational poverty translate into impactful policies?
Chief Executive John Lee visits residents of a subdivided flat in Sham Shui Po in July. Photo: Facebook

The issue also points to the government’s troubles with the complicated processes involved in approving and actualising a plan. These processes are part of an essential system of checks and balances, but can also obstruct progress.

The controversial Fanling housing plan is a legacy of the previous administration. The Task Force on Land Supply recommended taking back 32 hectares of the golf course after conducting an extensive five-month public consultation in 2018. It had found that 61 per cent of the public were in favour of repurposing private recreational sites.

With the land lease on the golf course expiring in 2020, the task force saw an opportunity to alleviate the city’s acute shortage of land in the short-to-medium term.


Tenancies are granted to not-for-profit organisations at nominal rent for sports purposes. The Hong Kong Golf Club is among the numerous private clubs in the city that get to avoid paying full price for public land, while they can charge their members handsomely for their exclusivity, in membership and access.

The waiting list for individual memberships of the Hong Kong Golf Club is said to be about 20 years. A second-hand corporate membership was reportedly around HK$11 million in 2021. The club has around 2,500 members.

Meanwhile, as of May this year, the wait for public housing is more than six years. There are 144,200 general applications for public rental flats. The government estimated last year that there were about 110,000 subdivided units housing more than 226,000 people in spaces as small as 20 sq ft.

The persistent shortage of land supply – the source of our housing woes – has put the spotlight on these private sports clubs, and in response, some have taken steps to increase public access.

The last administration, when questioned over the lease extension granted to the Hong Kong Golf Club for the Fanling site in 2020, explained that the club has in recent years, voluntarily opened up its sports facilities to eligible outside bodies and has also opened up its 18-hole course at Fanling for use on weekdays by members of the public holding valid handicap certificates.

If Fanling golf course is too precious to build on, let everyone enjoy it

The current government now faces the very real crisis of being seen to side with excess wealth should it not move in on the golf course. Letting this issue morph into a contest between the haves and have nots isn’t wise. There may only be one way out of this bureaucratic quagmire, and that is to find an alternative that would provide more homes in less time to address the short-term housing scarcity.

Perhaps the good news is that the current government is supposed to have a plan by next month. Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has set up two high-level task forces to boost land supply and speed up the construction of public flats, and has pledged to submit a proposal within the first 100 days of his administration. It can’t come soon enough.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA