Hong Kong lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick is calling for further investigation into cases where consultation firms may be using confidential government information to aid developers. It comes after Ove Arup & Partners, subsidiary of British engineering firm Arup Group, was caught using restricted government data without authorisation.

The group was suspended from tendering for three months after confidential government information was found to be used in New World Development’s application to build luxury homes in Wang Chau. Both the developer and the government had hired Arup to provide consultation for their reports and bids.

Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, middle, along with Nathan Law Kwun-chung, left, and Edward Yiu Chung-yim, right. Photo: Facebook screenshot.

The government has since backtracked on claims that its confidential data was used without authorisation, but Chu says the Arup incident is the tip of the iceberg and there may be many more cases of conflict of interest.

“If data on population and traffic can be used like that, this means that the chances that this kind of consulting firm will using other types of information without authorisation exists,” said Chu, as he spoke to the press on Monday morning.

“These few big consulting firms…they actually have a monopolising position, no matter among private developers or with the government. They are working for both sides, becoming something of a middle man, and clearly the effect now is that private developers would will get a lot of information or data they should not be getting, creating an advantage,” added Chu.

Edward Yiu. Photo: CUHK.

Ming Pao reported on Saturday that at least 11 cases of restricted information regarding population and employment being used in reports compiled by three different consulting firms apart from Ove Arup.  According to the paper MVA SYSTRA Group, AECOM Asia Company Limited, as well as Ozzo Technology Limited are using confidential government data to work with developers including New World Development, Sun Hung Kai, Henderson Land Development. The reports involved schools and flats, as well as columbarium.

Edward Yiu Ching-yim, a lawmaker representing the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency, said on Sunday that banning Ove Arup for three months was meaningless. He says that the government should consider asking the company to pay a penalty as there are only a few players in the industry, and a ban would only reduce competition. Yiu suggested that the government should also take further steps to prevent information from being leaked.

”What is the Wang Chau controversy?”

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been forced to explain a decision to construct 17,000 public housing flats in Yuen Long in separate phases. Plans to build 13,000 units on a Wang Chau brownfield site occupied by a rural strongman’s car park were postponed, whilst a proposal to build 4,000 flats on a nearby greenbelt site occupied by non-indigenous villages was approved. As evidence of off-the-record lobbying with rural leaders emerged, a blame game ensued as the government stood accused of bowing to pressure from rural bigwigs at the expense of villagers.

The scale of the project may be scaled back further, as rural leaders object to the project hurting the area’s feng shui – a Chinese philosophical system relating to harmony with the environment. The phase of 4,000 units will be close to hillside graves.

”Who is involved?”

The controversy was the centrepiece of incoming lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick’s election campaign, and his win helped bring the issue to the fore.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is also directly involved as he was the chairman of a task force on the project. Leung said that he made the decision to conduct the project in separate phases in January 2014, after the housing bureau suggested it to him. The housing bureau made the suggestion after two informal meetings with rural leaders in July and September 2013. There were no records of minutes of the third informal meeting in March 2014.

The rural leaders informally consulted were former Yuen Long District Council chairman and lawmaker Leung Che-cheung, district councillor Tang Hing-ip, Ping Shan Rural Committee chairman Tsang Shu-wo, vice-chairman Tang Tat-sin and Heung Yee Kuk councillor Tang Chi-keung. Villagers living on the greenbelt site were not consulted.

Henry Cheng Kar-Shun, chief of New World, is a supporter of Leung Chun-ying. The government did not take back a nearby greenbelt site owned by developer New World for the public housing project. New World instead applied for a change of land zoning to build private housing after the public housing proposal was approved by the district council. The private housing project may share driveways and a roundabout with the public housing project, according to plans.

”Who is blaming whom?”

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said that the Steering Committee on Land Supply chaired by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was in charge of the project’s details. Leung also said the Transport and Housing Bureau is under the Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Both Tsang and Lam have denied involvement. Both have been rumoured to be vying for the position of Chief Executive.

Incoming lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick has claimed that there was collusion between the government, businesses, rural groups and triads.

”What is the timeline of the controversy?”

Housing Department and Innovation and Technology Commission join forces to research the feasibility of a public housing project in Wang Chau.

June 27, 2013
The inter-departmental Wang Chau development task force, chaired by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, hold their first meeting.

July 2013
The task force meets rural leaders.

September 2013
The task force meets rural leaders again.

The Housing Department announces a study of a housing project on 34 hectares of brownfield land in Wang Chau. The housing project will provide an estimated 17,000 units to house 52,000 people.

April 2014
The government proposes to move the Wang Chau housing project to a greenbelt instead of the brownfield site, on which is a car park owned by Tsang Shu-wo, chairman of the Ping Shan Rural Committee. This reduces the number of public housing units to be provided to 4,000.

June 24, 2014
The housing plan is submitted to a Yuen Long District Council meeting where the government mentions, on record for the first time, the cut to 4,000 units.

October 2014
A research report emerges suggesting the Housing Department should implement the housing project in phases.
February 2015
The Housing Authority rejects the report and plans to develop only the 4,000 public housing units.

March 2016
The government says it will prioritise other development in Wang Chau “according to the progress of accompanying infrastructure”.

August 2016
Non-indigenous villagers affected by the development criticise the government for bowing down to rural leaders. They also complain they are being evicted without a comprehensive proposal for relocation.

September 2016
Eddie Chu Hoi-dick wins a seat in LegCo. He says he will prioritise investigation of the Wang Chau land controversy.

Chu also says he has received death threats because of his involvement in the controversy.

September 13, 2016
CY Leung says the decision to build 4,000 units first was because he wanted to put easier projects first. The government will not bow down before rural forces and triads.

September 15, 2016
Lawmakers-elect Chu and Edward Yiu Chung-yim request the release of all documents related to the Wang Chau controversy, but the government only releases the cover and contents page of the 2012 feasibility report.

September 17, 2016
Leaked documents from the government reveal that a task force chaired by CY Leung was set up for the Wang Chau developments. The task force “soft lobbied” local rural leaders twice in 2013. The government admits that “informal consultation” is the Housing Authority’s usual approach.

September 19, 2016
CY Leung says he was only responsible for ‘high level decisions.’ Details were left to the Steering Committee on Land Supply chaired by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah. Tsang’s office says Tsang never attended task force meetings, and the Steering Committee on Land Supply did not decide to divide the Wang Chau development into phases.

September 20, 2016
Leung invites Chu to join a discussion platform for the Wang Chau development that he has set up.

September 21, 2016
Leung admits that he made the decision to cut the provision of public housing units to 4,000.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung says the government held four “soft lobbying” sessions with local rural leaders, but there are no records of these meetings.

September 22, 2016
Chu and Yiu call for investigation into Wang Chau land controversy using the Powers and Privileges Ordinance. Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the pro-Beijing party DAB, finds it unnecessary.

September 23, 2016
Rural bigwig Tang Kwan-shing says that villagers should move as it is difficult to move and store bulky cargo, and that villagers should “sacrifice themselves for the greater good.”

September 24, 2016
Apple Daily reveals that Tsang Shu-wo could be earning up to HK$100m from car park he operates partly on government land, and land he rents for HK$1 per square foot.

September 27, 2016
CY Leung says plans to develop flats on the car park site will commence after dispute is solved.

September 28, 2016
Apple Daily reports that engineering giant Arup Group used confidential information from the Hong Kong government in New World Development’s application to build luxury homes in Wang Chau.

”Why does it matter?”

Housing is one of the most important issues Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been working on since he took office. The incident sparked accusations that the government had bowed to rural pressure, and that it was colluding with businesses and triads. Leung has been accused of having ties with triads before he even took office – in February 2012, his election aides attended a dinner at a restaurant in Lau Fau Shan with rural strongmen and alleged former triad boss “Shanghai Boy” Kwok Wing-hung.

The incident could harm Leung’s chance of running for re-election.

Chantal Yuen

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.