Now is the best chance to reform the Heung Yee Kuk|Alex Price

Published (HKT): 2020.09.15 10:00

Imagine an organization run almost exclusively by men that can influence government policy-making, that colludes with gangsters to get its dirty work done, and which has a say in choosing the chief executive despite having fewer than 150 registered voters. An organization that is steadfastly against women being allowed to build village houses. An organization that has been led by a billionaire father and son dynasty for the past 40 years.

Welcome to the Heung Yee Kuk.

The kuk, as it’s known, was established in 1926 to represent the interests of indigenous villagers. It was later made a statutory advisory body, serving as a bridge between the government and rural communities. The original aims for the kuk were undoubtedly well-intentioned, but over the decades it has transformed into an empire of rural leaders: an old-boys' network of self-interests and money-making, with some distinctly dubious connections.

Here’s one example of how the emancipated, forward-looking kuk operates.

In 1898, Britain signed a 99-year lease on the New Territories, the extensive rural part of Hong Kong that borders mainland China. The British agreed that clan traditions would not be tampered with, and passed legislation barring women from inheriting land unless named in a will.

The situation remained unchallenged until 1994, when then-legislator Christine Loh moved a private member’s bill in an attempt to allow women villagers the same land-inheritance rights as men.

The Heung Yee Kuk protested vehemently, saying that granting women equal inheritance rights was interfering in rural issues. They even went so far as to send a 25-member delegation on a six-day visit to London to protest against the bill to the U.K. government – although who knows, maybe they just wanted to see the sights and have some jollies.

The bill was eventually passed with government backing however, much to the kuk’s chagrin.

But this is just one example of the kuk’s misogyny and selfishness. The Small House Policy, introduced in 1972, was created with – for the most part – good intentions. It was meant to improve housing standards in rural areas, and appease restless villagers following the 1967 riots.

The policy entitles descendants of indigenous people in the New Territories to build a house of up to three storeys, with about 700 square feet per floor, without having to pay a land premium to the government. This means that by spending about USD700,000 to build it, you get a house worth around USD2.6 million – nice.

But it’s a men-only deal. Female villagers are not allowed to join in the fun. At this point alarm bells will be ringing for most reasonable people. In fact, this stunningly discriminatory piece of legislation is so, err, discriminatory, it has its own special exemption clause in the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.

And that’s not the only issue – remember the policy was intended to help villagers get a nice home for themselves. In reality, owners often sit on the land for five years, and then sell it at a profit to developers – an illegal process known as “flipping.”

Yet whenever the discriminatory and dodgy nature of the policy is raised, the kuk wrinkles up its face, spits out the dummy and wails about “interference in indigenous rights.”

And then there’s the matter of how the kuk is organised and operates. For 35 years it was led by the late Lau Wong-fat, who amassed a portfolio of over 700 plots of land and 40 buildings across the New Territories. He became a billionaire.

The words “interested”, “self” and “vested” spring to mind. When he stepped down in 2015 his seat was taken by his son Kenneth. If that’s not enough to get eyebrows raising, there have been endless allegations of under-the-table deals between the kuk and various administrations and officials, and of village leaders hiring triad thugs when they need some muscle. Indeed many see the distinction between the kuk and triads as being just shades of grey.

I would suggest the government now has a good opportunity to push for reform. Over the decades various administrations have looked to the kuk for support in rural areas, even as the organization frequently held the government to ransom for its own interests.

But the Carrie Lam administration has little to lose and plenty to gain. In the 2016 Legislative Council elections, two candidates won landslide victories by campaigning for land reform in the New Territories. Clearly the public are fed up with the kuk’s stranglehold on the matter, which prevents large-scale planned housing growth, adding to Hong Kong’s insanely high property prices.

Yes, the old boys will kick up a fuss, and will probably threaten to use their one seat in Legco as leverage against the government. But by pushing the kuk to change, the administration will win back some of the public faith it has lost in recent years. More importantly, it will address an organization that is over-ripe for transparency and reform, if indeed it is not already rotten.

(Alex Price is a journalist who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over 30 years.)

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