Make no mistake about it, the Heung Yee Kuk is a mafia-like organisation that rules the New Territories like its own private fiefdom; it should be gutted and abolished.

No matter what part of Hong Kong you live in, you should recognise the Kuk for what it is—a glaring, long-standing embarrassment to the city’s aspirations for clean government and the rule of law. Moreover, you should support newly elected lawmakers in their quest to bring to heel the rural overlords in the New Territories who make an open mockery of even the pretence of honesty and transparency as they go about making their under-the-table, sweetheart property transactions amid a singular atmosphere of political quid pro quo that perpetuates the outrage.

heung yee kuk

If you live on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon, this might appear to be a strictly New Territories issue to you, but think again. If, like most residents of this city, you live in a flat (or, for the very unfortunate, a cage) for which you are paying far too much for way too little, you can thank the Kuk for that. If you wonder why you are among the 50 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people who can only dream of owning their own home in the city’s astronomically priced real-estate market, you may again thank the Kuk for that.

Breaking the stranglehold the Kuk maintains on land in much of the New Territories—which, although it comprises 952 square kilometres (or 86.2 percent) of Hong Kong as a whole, houses only half of its population—would go a long way toward making life more comfortable and affordable for all of us. People in New Territories West realise this, and that’s why they gave Eddie Chu Hoi-dick—who made stopping collusion between the government and feudal landlords associated with the Kuk the centrepiece of his election campaign—84,121 votes, more than any other candidate in the five geographic constituencies in this month’s Legislative Council polls.

leung fuk yuen eddie chu
Leung Fuk Yuen and Eddie Chu.

Lawmaker-elect Edward Yiu Chung-yim, from the architectural sector, also gets it. That’s why he joined Chu last week in a meeting with Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po and Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-lung to demand redress and reform in the New Territories.

Chu’s impressive vote total and refusal to back down, even in the face of repeated death threats thought to come from hired triads, have given reformers momentum and put both the government and the Kuk on the defensive. It’s important to keep the pressure on and to frame the issue so that the public sees the long history of malfeasance and injustice in the New Territories in broader terms.

In the end, this is a fight for a fair and equal society in which owning a home becomes an achievable goal for everyone willing to work hard and manage their savings. There should be no special privileges or dispensation for a so-called “indigenous” few who fall under the protection of the Kuk—a cabal of vested interests headed by billionaire Lau Wong-fat, the quintessential New Territories strongman, from 1980 until his health began to decline in 2015, when in a typical example of the Kuk’s nepotistic insider culture, his son, Kenneth Lau Ip-keung, took over.

Lau Wong-fat.
Lau Wong-fat. File

For now, Chu and Yiu are focusing on the issue of how a 2012 government proposal to build 17,000 public housing units on a 33-hectare site in Yuen Long, most of it designated as a brownfield area scattered with car parks and garages, turned into a 2014 plan to construct only 4,000 units on a nearby 5.6-hectare greenfield site occupied by three non-indigenous villages. The dramatic scale-back occurred after officials from the Housing Department held a private meeting with members of the Ping Shan Rural Committee, whose chairman, Tsang Shu-wo, owns some of the car parks.

Yes, that smacks of collusion and prompted Chu to ask to see a record of what was discussed at the meeting. Housing chief Cheung insisted, however, that such informal meetings are commonplace and that no records are kept.

Cheung’s explanation may be intended to provide a convenient escape hatch for officials and rural leaders loyal to the Kuk, but it also stinks at least as much as any of the many New Territories sites commonly used (often with impunity) as illegal dumping grounds for everything from construction waste to toxic e-waste from as far away as the United States.

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Secretary of Transport and Housing, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung. Photo: Now TV.

Yet there is a much bigger stench about this story that covers much of the Kuk’s 90-year history in Hong Kong. Established in 1926, the Kuk began as an ad hoc group that truly did represent the rural interests of people in the New Territories, then undeveloped and far flung from the seat of colonial power on Hong Kong Island.

But a monster was born in December of 1959, when the Kuk became a statutory body formally tasked with advising the government on social and economic development as it affected New Territories residents. Since then, rural kingpins have used their special status to build real-estate empires and curry favour with bureaucrats and politicians.

The Kuk’s crowning achievement came in 1972, when the Small House Policy was implemented. In enacting this policy, the colonial government’s aim was to win the support of New Territories residents by greatly improving what was then the generally dismal quality of housing there.

A small house village in New Territories.
A small house village in New Territories.

Perversely, however, in today’s Hong Kong, this anachronistic policy—which the Kuk supports with all its accumulated power, bluster and influence—serves to block the healthy development of the New Territories that it was intended to spur.

Under the policy, any male villager who is a descendant of another male who resided in the New Territories in 1898, when the territories were ceded to the British, is granted land to build a three-storey house, with up to 700 square feet allowed for each floor.

Never mind that some of the “indigenous” owners of these free houses live in England and other distant lands or that the illegal (and highly lucrative) transfer of land rights by indigenous villagers to property developers has become as commonplace as those informal meetings defended by Cheung.

And, of course, one should also point out that the policy wins the prize as the most hopelessly outdated piece of sexism still extant in Hong Kong and perhaps anywhere in the developed world. Quite simply, in a microcosm, it represents everything that is wrong with the Kuk.

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Photo: StandNews.

A corrupt, sexist anachronism woefully out of touch with the 21st-century needs of Hong Kong, the Kuk now stands squarely in the way of development plans that could make this city a better place for all who live here, not just for a privileged few. Unfortunately, it is also deeply entrenched in our social, economic and political life and perceived to be the champion of indigenous villagers, whose “traditional rights and interests” are protected by Article 40 of the Basic Law.

So abolish the Kuk? A laudable idea, but it is not going to be realised any time soon.

But greater Kuk transparency and the end of the New Territories as a de facto, sordid special administrative region of its own—that’s the worthy cause Chu and Yiu have taken up.

They need support for their efforts not just in the New Territories but all over Hong Kong if they are to have any prospect of success in what is so far shaping up as a David vs. Goliath contest.

Let’s give it to them.

Correction 20/9: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Small House Policy became law in 1972. In fact, the policy is not a law.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.