The hot issue of the day is the growing row over a housing project in Wang Chau, which is near Yuen Long in the northwestern New Territories. We need not go into this in great detail. Indeed anything I say about it will probably be out of date in a matter of days if not hours.

But the story goes more or less like this.

The government proposed to build a large public housing estate in Wang Chau, on a piece of land it already owns. Before proceeding with this there was a meeting of some kind with village heads, landowners and gangsters (three categories which overlap considerably in this corner of Hong Kong) and the plan was then changed to a small housing estate on a different piece of land which is currently occupied by three villages.

wang chau brownfield site
The car park in Wang Chau. Photo: HKFP/Stanley Leung.

Much suspicion, not to say ire, has been aroused by the discovery that one of the assembled heads, landowners and gangsters was illegally occupying a large section of the proposed housing site, on which he was running a lucrative business.

The government account of the crucial meeting is that it was engaged in “soft lobbying” in advance of the project, whose final shape had not been decided. And what, we may well wonder, is soft lobbying?

Happily there is an answer available through Google, but it is not a very helpful one in this context. Lobbying we all understand. The word derives from the lobby of the House of Commons, which is the place where Members of Parliament meet visitors who are not members.

Hence lobbying is the activity in which non-members try to persuade members to pass or not to pass legislation according to the non-members’ desire or interest. People who lobby are called lobbyists (as well as ruder things) and there are plenty of them.

Wang Chau press conference
CY Leung and John Tsang at a press conference addressing the government’s handling of the Wang Chau project.

So far so simple – a lobbyist is one who seeks to persuade a legislator to use his power in a way pleasing to the lobbyist or his employer. “Soft lobbying,” at least in the US, apparently refers to an alternative procedure whereby the lobbyist supports and encourages a non-government organisation to exert pressure on his behalf. gives the example of a campaign to require food manufacturers to divulge the amount of corn syrup in their products. This was waged by a voluntary organisation called Citizens for Health. But the healthy citizens were heavily subsidised and much encouraged by the sugar industry, which regards corn syrup as a major threat to its prospects.

Clearly this can hardly be what the government spokesman intended when using “soft lobbying” to describe a group of officials trekking off to distant corners of the NT to persuade local bigwigs of the merits of a housing project. I suppose he was looking for a plausible alternative to “public consultation,” which would not do in this case because the public consulted consisted only of the aforementioned village heads, landowners and gangsters.

Tsang Shu-wo Eddie Chu Leung Che-cheung
Tsang Shu-wo, Eddie Chu, Leung Che-cheung.

Still the use of “lobbying” in this context is curious. Usually it means people without power, at least without legislative power, beseeching those with power to exercise it in a helpful way. Using it in this context seems to imply that any rural bigwig who is in illegal occupation of a large piece of government land must be cajoled and persuaded into giving it up by an otherwise helpless administration. And if he refuses they have to think of something else.

This is a rather timid posture for our government, and indeed a marked contrast with its attitude to unlawful activities in other contexts. If you unlawfully enter the space in front of the LegCo building which was originally designed as a public open space, you may be prosecuted. If you demonstrate peacefully in the road you may be tear-gassed. If you throw rocks at policemen in Mong Kok they are allowed to throw them back.

These phenomena demonstrate the government’s firm commitment to the rule of law. So what is demonstrated by allowing rural grandees to occupy government land for years, and then politely asking if they would please, if it’s not too much trouble, give it up for public purposes? And then taking “no” for an answer?

Banners against development on Wang Chau greenbelt. Photo: HKFP/Stanley Leung.

If I may make a practical suggestion, officials need to consider that where there is “soft lobbying” there should also be “hard lobbying,” and if the soft version fails it is their duty to move on to the more serious stuff. What would hard lobbying look like?

Well, faced with an obdurate squatter on government land, we could start by pointing out the legal ease with which we can not only throw him off it but also require payment of several years of unpaid rent.

If that fails we could further point out to the recalcitrant individual that while the incidence of government inspections is random there are occasional coincidences, and he may find in the coming week that the Buildings Ordinance Office wishes to check his house for illegal alterations, the Food and Hygiene people would like a look at his kitchen, the Transport Department wishes to make sure his car has not been tweaked and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department wants to see his dog licence.

And if that fails we can point out that in view of the complete frustration of government efforts to use land in the NT there will be an immediate comprehensive review of the law and regulations on the matter, and pending the results of this, the Small House Policy will be suspended with immediate effect. His role in bringing this about will be emphasised.

This might solve the practical problem. It still leaves the question – what they are going to put in future dictionaries? Presumably the American meaning will come first. Then will come “2: (in Hong Kong only) politely persuading criminals not to oppose government housing projects.”

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.