Like many who grew up in Hong Kong’s villages, 30-year-old Patrick Cheng spent his childhood roaming the outdoors, playing, and developing an appreciation for nature in Wang Chau, Yuen Long.

He remembers taking his friends visiting from the city to the rooftop of his one-storey house, where they picked longan, wampi and pomelo from trees. On clear autumn nights, Cheng and his brother would stargaze on the same rooftop, as the area was relatively free from light pollution. They would sometimes fall asleep to the sound of frogs and insects.

The Chengs grow many plants in their garden. They have five dogs which they consider as part of the family. This is the only home they know, but their days in the village are numbered.

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Patrick Cheng at his home. Photo: Patrick Cheng.

Three villages located in the Wang Chau greenbelt – Fung Chi Tsuen, Wing Ning Tsuen and Yeung Uk Sang Tsuen – may soon be demolished to make way for development. Including the Chengs, over 2,000 villagers have been told that evictions are to begin as early as January.

Wang Chau scandal

As part of the Wang Chau development project, 4,000 public housing units will be built on the 5.6-hectare greenbelt. The plan, however, is tainted by scandal after it was revealed that the government scaled down the project from 17,000 public housing flats following informal, unrecorded meetings with rural leaders.

In the original proposal, the government suggested developing a nearby 34-hectare brownfield site. The land, controlled mainly by rural strongmen, is mostly used for open storage and car parks. The government later dropped the plan without explanation.

Map outlining the brownfield site and greenbelt zone. Photo: HKFP.

Local media estimated that Tsang Shu-wo – one of the rural leaders who allegedly met with the government – may make close to HK$100 million annually by operating a car park on the brownfield site. It sits partly on government land, some of which had not been authorised for such use.

Critics also voiced concern over possible unlawful use of the land. Land policy group Liber Research Community found that over half of the Wang Chau brownfield land designated for open storage is owned by the government. Based on publicly available documents, the group said it is highly likely that some of the government land is being occupied illegally.

The government came under fire for failing to stop rural stakeholders from using public land unlawfully. Local media found that multiple departments were unable to prevent a car park operator in the brownfield site from illegally removing road fences to build an entrance. The issue was first discovered in 2010 and still had not been rectified when the news broke last year.

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The impugned entrance in Wang Chau. Photo: Google Street View.

Meanwhile, the chairman of an open storage business alliance said Wang Chau villagers should “sacrifice themselves for the greater good of development.” No official has been held accountable for the scandal thus far, and pro-democracy politicians continue to press the government for an explanation.

The government later said the original number of flats will eventually be built, though it does not have a timetable. Last month, it submitted a budget proposal to the legislature, asking for HK$2.4 billion for conducting infrastructure works at the Wang Chau site. A housing official admitted that it is probably the most expensive among all similar projects for public housing estates, but he said the high cost is due to the hilly nature of the terrain. He did not explain why the nearby brownfield site – which is mostly flat – was not being used instead.

Grassroots campaign

Yeung Uk Sang Tsuen resident and retiree Ms. Cheung said she was shocked when she found out about the plans. “It came out of the blue in 2015,” Cheung recalled. “There were no details and nobody had notified us before that. We had no idea what was going on.”

Brownfield site in Wang Chau. Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

Cheung and her husband bought an old house in Wang Chau as their retirement home 14 years ago. As gardening enthusiasts, the couple grew many flowers in their yard – a hobby they would not be able to maintain if they lived in the urban area.

“We are very upset about the way the government handled the matter. It claimed it had consulted us, but in fact it had only spoken to district councillors or people whom it thinks represent us. We didn’t know anything about the plan. How is this fair? Shouldn’t you talk to the people affected by your plan, people who actually live here?”

Cheung has no plans as to where she and her husband will live after the eviction. In the past, affected villagers would likely be guaranteed public housing if they wished to be resettled. This is no longer the case. Today, villagers must meet the same income and asset requirements as other public housing applicants. The problem is that many villagers, like Ms. Cheung, are retirees with savings that exceed the upper asset limit. Yet, they also cannot afford to buy an apartment given Hong Kong’s high housing prices.

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The banner says: “The government is a robber who takes away our property.” Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

“It is really a humble request: I just want resettlement. You take away all that I have. We made the sacrifice. Shouldn’t you at least give us housing in compensation?” Cheung said.

To raise awareness, Wang Chau villagers have been organising community events for the past two years. They joke about the curious origins of the movement: the villagers first turned to rural leader and lawmaker Leung Che-cheung for help and, at his suggestion, began campaigning against the plan. But they soon became disenchanted by Leung’s lack of commitment, realising that only they themselves could save their homes. Today, the movement is spearheaded by villagers and volunteers.

Patrick Cheng is one of the campaign’s core members who leads bi-weekly tours in Wang Chau. He takes participants to a small hill behind the villages that overlooks the disputed brownfield site.

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The brownfield site adjacent to Wang Chau, with Shenzhen in the background. Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

“The root cause of inadequate public housing is the unjust land policy, where land that can be developed is not being developed. Meanwhile, developers hoard land or use it to build luxury apartments. No one is committed to addressing Hong Kong’s housing needs. Wang Chau is a valuable lesson for Hong Kong,” Cheng said.

The campaigner emphasised that no amount of compensation will make up for the loss of the villagers. “We are not asking for more compensation. To be honest, no matter how much the government raises the amount, it won’t be enough to meet our current living standards: We live in 1,000-square-foot houses with courtyards. The air is clean and relationships between neighbours are good. These are things that money can’t buy.”

See also: Video: Sha Lo Wan’s Last Stand – A dying village on the frontlines of Lantau’s development rush

Events like the tours may be making a difference. Secondary school teacher Ron Lo told HKFP after the tour that he was upset by the injustice and planned to bring his students on the tour. “After seeing firsthand what it is like here, the issue now feels more personal. I won’t feel like I am telling someone else’s story when I tell other people about Wang Chau now,” he said.

Government, businesses, rural powers and triads

It remains uncertain whether these campaigns are impactful enough to untangle the deep-seated problem that the Wang Chau saga revealed: the intricate web of land interests among the government, rural strongmen, developers and triads.

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Wang Chau villagers, including Patrick Cheng (left), at a protest. File Photo: Dan Garrett.

The issue was brought to the forefront by lawmaker Eddie Chu – well known for his tireless fight for land justice – during his Legislative Council election campaign in 2015. Chu himself received death threats warning him to stay out of the Wang Chau dispute.

Rural leader Leung Fuk-yuen admitted to online media outlet Initium that gang members were a part of the brownfield economy. He said some brownfield business owners asked gang members to manage the operations on their behalf “to avoid trouble.”

Gang members are also involved when landowners refuse to sell their land, according to Leung. “Sometimes there are issues that the government and police can’t handle. These [gang members] will be asked to intervene,” Leung said, though he added that it was risky to deal with gangs.

Land policy researcher Chan Kim-ching of the Liber Research Community told HKFP that gang involvement is not new; it existed before the 1997 handover. “After 1997, many triad members went to work in mainland China. But around 2007, land policy was changed to focus to rural areas and land near the border; the New Territories was turned into a battlefield for land interests,” he said.

“The loose land management in the New Territories led to a boom in illegal businesses, such as underground columbarium business. This attracted many triad members to return to Hong Kong. Weak law enforcement is another pull factor.”

It seems that land justice advocates and villagers are fighting an uphill battle – against the resourceful government, the capitalist machine, and a dangerous gang network. To top it off, Chan said the city is obsessed with economic growth rather than people’s wellbeing. But he said that it is possible to disrupt the network – by pushing for a land reform that puts the interests of the people first.

Wang Chau
Wang Chau residents painted the Chinese characters “democratic urban planning” on a village path. Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

Recent government data reveals that there are about 1,300 hectares of brownfield land in the city. If the policy shifts to prioritise developing brownfield sites, the potential impact is huge and it could mark a turning point in Hong Kong’s housing history.

Chan expected most brownfield landowners to accept the government’s offer to buy their land, but the opposition would mainly come from stakeholders of businesses on brownfield sites.

“The actual opposition is a minority in terms of number, but these people have a lot of influence in rural politics,” he said. “The government pretends that the biggest obstacle is technical issues such as the irregular shape of brownfield sites, but it is just an excuse.”

The researcher believes that if there is enough public support for land reform, the government will eventually have to respond to public demand. “Every citizen has a duty to understand the issue and advocate suggestions for land reform. We need a citizenry that can think critically and will not be easily influenced by the government.”

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A poster at the Wang Chau village notice board says: “Residents of the three villages unite… we want a collective dialogue.” Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

Chan’s sentiment was echoed by Cheng, who told the tour participants: “If Hong Kong people do not wake up to the shady Wang Chau scandal, if they let the government get away with it, I don’t think we will be able to defend the rest of rural Hong Kong.”

“I don’t know what we can do to change the situation, but at the minimum, we should speak up when we know something is wrong. This is not just a struggle of the villagers; it is also a fight for our future generations.”

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Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.