Heung Yee Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau Ip-keung. Photo: SCMP Pictures

Hong Kong’s rural residents body Heung Yee Kuk vows to flex its political muscle if voice ignored

Rift between pro-government parties and indigenous allies shows signs of widening with latter looking to become independent electoral force

An emerging rift between the pro-establishment camp and its usually stalwart rural leaders has shown signs of widening, with some defiant members vowing to take an independent line on policy where necessary and demonstrate the political muscle of the city’s indigenous families.

Patriarchs have said their top priority in future will be pursuing the interests of their fellow villagers rather than towing the government line, and have complained their voices have been ignored and their interests sacrificed by the government despite indigenous families being considered a key part of the city’s pro-establishment force.

The Heung Yee Kuk, the rural body that represents the indigenous families of the New Territories, is considering setting up a formal political organisation to field a candidate to compete against a fellow pro-Beijing candidate in next month’s Legislative Council by-election.

The kuk has been an important pro-establishment political force in the past, playing a key role in mobilising villagers to support candidates from pro-government political parties. But there have been rows between the kuk and the Leung Chun-ying government over both sides’ failure to discuss the future of the much-criticised small house policy, as well as government plans to expand a landfill in Tuen Mun despite opposition from local villagers.

The small-house policy, meant to be a temporary measure when it was introduced in the 1970s, allows indigenous male residents of old villages in the New Territories to build a village house once they reach 18 years old. The policy has been widely abused, with people no longer resident in their home village, or even in Hong Kong, building homes which they rent out or sell. The kuk is seen as one of the obstacles to reforming or scrapping the policy.

Bowie Hau Chi-keung, a kuk ex officio executive councillor and Sheung Shui rural committee chairman, said: “The rural force is not quitting the pro-establishment camp. But we need to make it very clear that if you are nice to us, we will be nice to you. Otherwise, we will do it our own way and show you our power.”

Hau cited the defeat of Leung Che-cheung of the leading pro-government party the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong in the recent race for chairmanship of the Yuen Long district council as an example of the kuk breaking ranks with the establishment.

In what was dubbed a coup d’etat, the rural leaders in the council joined hands with pan-democrats to unseat Leung, and install Wilson Shum Ho-kit, an independent, as the council chairman.

“The DAB had said they had secured enough votes to win the election. And now they can see the results,” said Hau.

A kuk adviser, Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, who is also director of the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre, said: “The trouble has been brewing for some time. It happened against the backdrop of rural leaders’ grievances with some pro-establishment parties.”

Speaking at an inauguration ceremony for the kuk’s executive committee last month, the rural body’s chairman Kenneth Lau Ip-keung said the kuk would seek to work with various political parties so long as it would not damage the legitimate rights of indigenous villagers in the New Territories.

Leung played down speculation of the DAB splitting with the rural force and believed his defeat in the Yuen Long chairmanship race was more of a “personal feud”. He believed he had angered some rural leaders after he declined to endorse any of the vice-chairmanship candidates supported by the kuk in the district council’s last term.

Leung warned: “I believe it will only make it more difficult for the kuk to gain political influence if it cannot tolerate other pro-establishment parties.”

A source from the Beijing-loyalist camp, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was an internal power struggle going on between a DAB-friendly faction and their rivals inside the kuk. That battle had intensified after Lau took over as chairman last June, the source added.

Former Tuen Mun rural committee chairman Junius Ho Kwan-yiu said: “On the big issues, I believe the pro-establishment camp will remain united. But in some policy areas where different factions have different interests, they will of course fight for the best interest for their factions.”

In June, the kuk agreed in a meeting that the rural community should seek to gain bigger influence in politics, and voted to endorse a plan to sponsor a candidate for next month’s Legislative Council by-election.

The nomination period for the by-election is expected to end on January 18. So far, the kuk has made no decision.

Lau met representatives of all 27 rural committees in the New Territories earlier last year to gather their views. Most of them were understood to support the idea of forming a political organisation to represent their interests.

Under the present system, a rural committee chairman is given a seat on the local district council. The kuk also has a seat in the Legislative Council and it occupies 26 seats on the election committee that is tasked with choosing the city’s chief executive.