Hong Kong’s depraved political system forced the three leading candidates for chief executive to cast all principle aside earlier this month. One by one they queued up to lobby for support from the Heung Yee Kuk. No doubt holding their noses against the strong stench of corruption, all three had no alternative but to kowtow to the powerful rural body.
At stake were not only the 26 votes in the Election Committee held by the Kuk in its own name, but also the 60 votes held by the agriculture and fisheries sector over which the body’s leading lights exercise a fair degree of influence. You read that correctly: a significant total bloc of 86 out of the 1200 people who will decide who holds our highest public office for the next five years. By way of comparison, the financial services sector has 18 votes.
The Kuk members basically want two things: the glorious gravy train known as the small house policy to roll forward unchecked indefinitely; and for a blind eye to continue to be turned to illegal alterations and additions to existing village properties. They were not disappointed.
Everyone in Hong Kong – including, one assumes, the three candidates themselves plus, in their hearts, the members of the Kuk – knows that the small house policy cannot possibly continue. It gobbles up precious land with three-storey luxury villas in low-rise rural settings when there is a shortage of sites for intensive development to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of inadequately housed urban residents. Yet on the day all three pretended not to know. In fairness it should be added that a fourth candidate, retired Judge Woo Kwok Hing, had sailed a similar course on an earlier occasion.
Former chief secretary Carrie Lam ducked the issue by claiming the small house policy was the subject of legal proceedings. This was a cop-out. While it is correct that one aspect of the way the policy is implemented is under scrutiny by the courts, the underlying rationale of the overall policy is not. Lam did speak up on the issue of illegal alterations. Some years ago as Secretary for Development she had promoted a scheme to get villagers to register their changes for "temporary exemption". Rural leaders vehemently opposed the scheme on its introduction and publically urged a boycott, but now pretended that some villagers had "missed their chance". Lam thought the scheme might be reopened.
Former financial secretary John Tsang was also a fan of toleration provided the changes were safe. He did at least address the issue of small houses and floated the idea of mixed development, which seemed to mean the traditional small house would have its usual three storeys but above it would be a number of additional floors which could be Home Ownership Scheme properties. While the 700 square feet apartments would no doubt be welcomed by those now occupying much smaller subdivided flats in the urban area, it would surely not be long before they compared their circumstances with the 2100 square feet given to the villagers. And how long would it be before the villagers wanted their three floors to be a fabulous penthouse at the top of the tower blocks, rather than at the bottom? Who would pay the additional construction costs? Would the space for lifts be included in the 700 square feet footprint or would extra land be allocated? Addressing such questions at the feasibility examination stage might well lead to the conclusion that the idea was not viable. But at least Tsang deserves credit for daring to convey the message to Kuk members that land resources in the New Territories needed to be shared by the whole community.
One-time security minister and (until recently) executive councillor Regina Ip was also in favour of going high rise to address the small house issue, and advocated negotiations with the Kuk to achieve a win win solution. How silly we have all been. Despite half a century of searching in vain, the answer was apparently out there all the time.
But I am being deliberately unfair to make a point. These three candidates are all capable honourable people. It says something rather sad about our political development that 15 years after introduction of the ministerial accountability system the strongest candidates we can find are all former members of the civil service, the very people the new layer of political officers was supposed to replace.
And it says something far darker about our political system that we have created a beast that requires honest men and women to dissemble quite so blatantly.
Whoever thought the day would come when we might have to depend on "long hair" Leung Kwok Hung to speak truth to power.