Hong Kong Basic Law

Hong Kong rural leaders call for Beijing to interpret Basic Law to keep home-building rights

Members of Heung Yee Kuk make call as they accuse the Hong Kong government of failing to protect their rights to build homes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2018, 8:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2018, 1:52pm

Hong Kong rural leaders want Beijing to intervene to help maintain New Territories villagers’ right to be given land to build villas.

At a gathering of about 1,000 villagers on Monday, rural patriarchs vented their anger at the Hong Kong government, accusing it of failing to protect their traditional rights as protected by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The gathering marked the annual New Territories Day, and coincided with a looming court case, expected to be heard in December, on whether the villagers’ right to build villas under the small-house policy should be regarded as part of their traditional rights.

Villagers waved placards as they shouted slogans, vowing to fight to the end to protect their traditional rights.

In his address, Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, chairman of the Heung Yee Kuk, a powerful advisory body representing New Territories villagers’ interests, said: “We have reached the tipping point.”

Lau, a legislator who also sits on Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet, suggested it would be appropriate to seek Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law in this case.

Article 40 of the Basic Law states that the traditional rights of the New Territories’ indigenous residents shall be protected. It does not, however, list what the traditional rights are.

Will Hong Kong’s Heung Yee Kuk rural powerhouse endure without ‘big brother’ Lau Wong-fat?

Article 158 of the Basic Law confers the power of interpreting the document itself upon the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the nation’s top legislative body. Its views will be final and binding. But interpretations often trigger controversy, as critics say they undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

The legal case was triggered by Cheung Chau resident Kwok Cheuk-kin, who filed for a judicial review in 2015 to scrap the small-house policy.

“The power to interpret the Basic Law is vested in the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The Hong Kong government’s role is to execute the Basic Law,” Lau told the press after the gathering.

Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, director of the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre, said: “When our traditional rights are challenged, we have not heard anything from the government, we have not heard anything from the Beijing liaison office.

OPINION: Government must stand up against the Heung Yee Kuk for the public good

“The government has the responsibility to make a clear stance. If it doesn’t know whether building a small house should be our traditional right protected by the Basic Law, it should ask Beijing, seek the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s interpretation of the Basic Law, rather than leaving it to the court to decide.”

Kuk vice-chairman Cheung Hok-ming added: “Some politicians like to twist the facts and claim it’s unfair for the New Territories villagers to have the privilege. It’s not a privilege. Before the British came in the late 1890s, we owned our land and could build houses wherever and whenever we liked. But after the handover, we are still treated unfairly by the Hong Kong government, which imposes various restrictions to prevent us from using our land.”

Under the small-house policy, a male indigenous villager is allowed free land once in his lifetime to build a three-storey village house, of about 700 sq ft for each floor, in the New Territories.

Heung Yee Kuk leader says Hong Kong illegal structure row with Carrie Lam all in the past

Rural leaders believe it is one of their traditional rights protected by the Basic Law. But critics argue the policy was only introduced in 1972 by the colonial government in a bid to gain support from villagers for development in the New Territories.

During the 3½-hour gathering, villagers also voiced discontent with the long waiting time for the government to screen their applications for building small houses. Some said they had waited for 10 years and still had not got approval.

Some proposed building high-rise small houses.

Monday’s gathering coincided with the first anniversary of the death of rural patriarch Lau Wong-fat, Kenneth Lau’s father. Villagers observed a minute’s silence before the event started.

Reader response: Why Beijing may be in no hurry to protect Hong Kong’s small-house policy