An ongoing debate between the powerful rural body Heung Yee Kuk and the Democratic Party has heated up over the party’s publication of a survey last week, in which 70 per cent of respondents said the Small House Policy for indigenous people should be abolished.

Last week, the party published the results of a survey that the party conducted by phone earlier this month. Over 70 per cent of the 705 respondents agreed that it should not be a right for indigenous people to build small houses in the New Territories. Over 60 per cent said it was unfair that the government reserved land for small house use, and that villagers should not be allowed to sell their rights.

Andrew Wan
Andrew Wan Siu-kin. Photo: Democratic Party.

Andrew Wan Siu-kin, lawmaker of the New Territories West constituency and vice-chairman of the party, said that 56 per cent of government reserved land was intended for small house use, whilst only 44 per cent was for the general public.

“The right for villagers to build small houses is unlimited, but land supply is limited, and unlimited small house rights would only make it more difficult for people living in urban areas to own a flat,” he said at the time.

The policy was introduced in December 1972 as the government wanted to gain support from indigenous villagers for development in the New Territories.

Small houses
Small houses. Photo: GovHK.

Under the Small House Policy, any male indigenous villager who is descended through the male line from someone who was a resident in 1898 of a recognised village in the New Territories may apply to build a small house –  a maximum of three storeys in height and 700 square feet in each floor – on their own land at zero premium, or on public land through a private treaty grant, once during his lifetime.

This right is non-transferable, and it is a criminal offence to sell the right.

‘Biased report’

The Democratic Party also said it was assisting an unnamed person in lodging a legal challenge at the High Court. The challenge argues that the right to build small houses is not included in the “lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories” stipulated by Article 40 of the Basic Law, and that the policy violates the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. The case has been accepted by the court.

On Monday, the Heung Yee Kuk criticised Wan as saying that the survey was “not scientific” and “not fair” as the survey did not explain to interviewees what the Small House Policy was, among other reasons.

“Why did Andrew Wan spend some HK$100,000 in subsidies to publish such a biased report?” said Kingsley Sit Ho-yin, director of the Kuk’s research centre.

Kingsley Sit Ho-yin
Kingsley Sit Ho-yin (front). screenshot.

Sit also criticised the notion that the policy should be abolished since some villagers have been prosecuted for selling their rights: “Should we abolish the whole system when someone cheats on the CSSA [social welfare] scheme and for public housing flats?”

He also urged the government to state clearly that the rights of villagers under the Small House Policy will be protected.

“Now we have to come out to protect our rights like Wukan village [in mainland China],” Siu said.

Political capital

Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau Ip-keung said the Small House Policy has adequate historical background and was protected by the Basic Law. He criticised the Democratic Party for tearing society apart to “gain political capital.”

Kenneth Lau is the son of former Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, who is the brother of Sit’s wife. Kenneth Lau replaced his father as a lawmaker of the Heung Yee Kuk functional constituency in October.

New Territories
New Territories. Photo: GovHK.

Soon after on Monday, Wan dismissed the criticism, saying that the Kuk only criticised the result of the survey because it “did not like it.”

Wan added that the Small House Policy was common knowledge to the public: “If the problem was fully explained, the number opposing the Small House Policy would only be higher.”

Wan also stated that the Small House policy was the reason behind the split in the society.

On an RTHK programme on Tuesday, Sit questioned if Wan was using the survey to create a stronger argument in the court case later.

“This minority [indigenous people] has been living in Hong Kong for more than 1,000 years – shouldn’t you respect them? Don’t bully us using the majority of society,” Sit said.

Wan said he would not deny the contributions of the indigenous people in Hong Kong’s history, but he did not agree that the right to build small houses is a part of the “lawful traditional rights” of the group, and said that the policy affects land distribution in Hong Kong.

The debate is likely to continue.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.