Tough questions for all those involved in Hong Kong’s Wang Chau housing saga
Three of city’s top officials and rural leader said to have stood in project’s way need to clarify their roles
The Wang Chau housing project has evolved from a land issue into a political battlefield where the two top men in the government cross swords, ahead of next year’s leadership election in which they may be rival candidates.
The spotlight is fully on the project after lawmaker-elect Eddie Chu Hoi-dick’s campaign over the past weeks to draw public attention to the plight of Yuen Long villagers it will displace, and to his long-time allegations of collusion between the government, business, landlords and triads behind it.
In a dramatic turn of events over the weekend, a leaked document revealed by a newspaper forced Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to admit that he had initiated an ad hoc task force on Wang Chau and Queen’s Hill golf course in Fanling.
Leung’s critics say it is unusual for the chief executive to take personal charge of a medium-sized project like this. Adding to their suspicions is the fact that there is no mention of the task force in public records.
The embattled Leung brought his subordinate and potential rival, John Tsang Chun-wah, into the equation on Monday.
He said a pre-existing Steering Committee on Land Supply, chaired by the financial secretary to coordinate various bureaus on all land-supply measures, was also involved.
Leung said that he set up the special task force to centrally coordinate the work of the development and the housing chiefs who report to the finance minister and chief secretary respectively.
As the plot thickens, the three top officials and a rural leader who is said to have stood in the way of the project must address these questions to clarify their roles.
Questions for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying
Did he personally make the decision to scale down Wang Chau from 17,000 flats to only 4,000, or at least defer the brownfield development to an unspecified time? If not, who did?
Why did he want to chair a task force for this local project, when the financial secretary already leads a pre-existing committee on land supply? Do the two panels overlap in their duties?
What is the basis for setting up the ad hoc task force and who are the members?
How many times did officials engage in “soft lobbying” for rural leaders’ support, and are there records of those exchanges?
Leung said he had chaired inter-departmental meetings “almost every week to take forward high-level coordination work for 20 to 30 large-scale, medium to long-term land development projects”. What are those projects?
Comments by former civil service minister Joseph Wong Wing-ping
“It is unprecedented for the chief executive to request to set up a task force on the small-scale housing development project.”
“It is very strange – Leung did not tell the public about the task force until it was revealed by media. People cannot help but suspect there are inconvenient reasons behind it.”
Regarding the weekly interdepartmental meetings, Wong said Leung was trying to confuse the issue: “How can you equate a special task force you set up on one project with standard weekly meetings? Such a deceitful way of using language cannot hold water.”
Questions for Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah
What exactly is his involvement in Wang Chau as Leung tasked his committee to follow up on “detailed issues”?
Did Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po, his subordinate, report to him on Wang Chau? Or was he bypassed?
Questions for Chief Secretary
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor
Lam has said she is not part of Leung’s task force or Tsang’s committee. But she is the supervisor of housing minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung. Did Cheung ever report to her on the progress on Wang Chau?
Questions for Tsang Shu-wo, chairman of Ping Shan Rural Committee
Tsang operates a huge car park in the brownfield site in Wang Chau, which is no longer prioritised for development.
How many times did he meet with officials over Wang Chau and what did they talk about?
As a staunch supporter of Leung Chun-ying, did he ever talk to the chief executive about the project and ask him not to touch his car park business?
Tsang is said to have asked for a “village extension area” for his people to build small houses in one of the soft lobbying meetings. How did the government
respond to his request?
Tsang Shu-wo’s answers
“I have never met Leung Chun-ying [over the issue]. Do you think [Leung] needs to see us on such a trivial thing? I did not even know he had chaired the task force.”
“Our rural committee had consulted the villagers and I ... conveyed their views through the usual procedure.”
“I support the government’s housing project. But if all of a
sudden there is an influx of people to Yuen Long … it is to make Yuen Long a human landfill.”
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung
What is known so far
Officials have been giving confusing accounts over the Wang Chau housing project.
● The government commissioned a study in 2012 on the feasibility of a public housing development and the extension of the Yuen Long industrial estate at Wang Chau, covering 33 hectares.
● Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying initiated a task force on Wang Chau and Queen’s Hill and chaired its only meeting. Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, on a duty visit, was absent.
July and Sept 2013
● Officials “soft lobbyied” rural leaders on a 17,000-flat project in Wang Chau, but the leaders opposed the size of the scheme.
● Officials told rural leaders the number of flats would be cut to 4,000 in an informal meeting, according to Yuen Long District Council chairman Leung Che-cheung who joined the talks.
● The Development Bureau briefed the district council on a plan to build 4,000 flats in southern Wang Chau, a green belt site where three villages lie.
● An internal government document, leaked by Apple Daily, said the Housing Department was “unlikely to proceed” with phases 2 and 3 – a brownfield site which would yield 13,000 more flats – due to opposition.
● The Housing Bureau told lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung’s that the contents of the 2012 study were “no longer applicable” and it only planned to pursue a 4,000-flat project.
● Ming Pao reported that a car park operated by Tsang Shu-wo took up most of the brownfield site in Wang Chau and occupied 8.5 hectares of government land.
● The Development Bureau told a Legislative Council panel the 2012 study had concluded the whole 17,000-flat scheme was “technically feasible” but it would build 4,000 flats first. The brownfield site would be developed “according to priority” and subject to formulation of policies for clearing brownfield sites.
● Activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick raised the Wang Chau issue during his campaign for a lawmaker seat. He queried whether there was collusion between the government, businesses, landlords and triads in the scaling down of the project. Chu said he faced death threats after he was elected.
Sources: District Council papers, Legislative Council papers, leaked government document