The head of Hong Kong’s rural clans organisation has defended the housing privileges of overseas male descendants of indigenous villagers, despite them not having a Hong Kong identity card or permanent residency.
Heung Yee Kuk chairman Kenneth Lau said on Tuesday that the identity of “indigenous villagers” did not depend on whether they were Hong Kong residents. Lau was responding to an investigative series by news outlet HK01, which stated that a housing estate in Tuen Mun was built under the names of 17 Malaysian men.
HK01 also interviewed three Malaysian men descended from Hong Kong’s indigenous villagers who admitted to selling their housing rights for profit. One man said all the male members in his extended family sold such rights, with each netting HK$100,000 per transaction.
“Quite a lot of indigenous villagers were forced to go overseas years ago, because they needed to make a living,” Lau said. “Despite them being overseas, we should not strip them of their rights… their roots are in the New Territories and one day they will come home for retirement.”
“We should not forget that [building] rights are a historical issue,” he added, saying it was a form of compensation to villagers after the colonial government took their land for development.
Under Hong Kong’s Small House Policy, male indigenous villagers who are descendants of a male line from a recognised village may apply to build a small house of up to three storeys. They can apply to construct homes on their own land at zero premium – known as the “free building licence.”
Last week, the High Court struck down parts of the policy but upheld the free building licence as constitutional. Indigenous villagers argued in court their housing privileges are covered under Basic Law Article 40, which protects Article 40 the “the lawful traditional rights and interests” of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories.
The court ruling renewed the debate over the policy, which critics say unfairly discriminated on the basis of sex and descent. The Heung Yee Kuk has vowed to protect villagers’ rights, though it has not publicly decided over whether to appeal.
Lau on Tuesday also criticised some media outlets for “having ulterior motives” in regularly targetting indigenous villagers.
Director of Lands Thomas Chan responded to media enquiries by saying that the Small House Policy only considers an applicant’s identity as an indigenous villager, not their nationality or current place of residence.
Under current laws, an applicant for a small house must be at least 18 years old, and “descended through the male line from a resident in 1898 of a recognised village.”
Chan added that it was a criminal offence to transfer one’s building rights for profit, and that the Lands Department has internal procedures for identifying such cases and referring them to law enforcement.
HK01 also reported that Lau’s family, including his late father and former Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, was involved with a property developer who dealt with the Malaysian men in question.
The younger Lau disputed the claim on Tuesday, saying that his father was a law-abiding citizen who had served the New Territories and Hong Kong for decades.
When asked about the Lau family and their suspected ties to the building profiteering operation, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would not comment on individual cases, and that they should be handled by the relevant departments.