Indigenous and non-indigenous villagers harbour conflicting interests over the government's development plans for NE New Territories
A boisterous crowd of 6,000 people congregated on a heavily guarded grass field under searing heat, and a cacophony of strident voices bellowing through loudspeakers and microphones rapidly engulfed the vast enclosed space.
Amidst fits of violent-jostling and slur-hurling within the crowd was the unceasing chanting of the all-too-familiar slogans: "No demolition or relocation" and "fight till the very end."
That was the third round of public consultation chaired by Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po on the Northeast New Territories New Development Areas Project, which took place in Sheung Shui on September 22.
Initiated by former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in 1998, the development plan would transform Kwu Tung North, Fanling North, Ping Che and Ta Kwu Ling into three new development areas to accommodate a growing population.
The plan's implementation, however, has been impeded by fierce opposition from non-indigenous villagers from these areas.
Mr Lee, a life-long resident of Kwu Tong North, said: "Our family has been here for over three generations and we have never had to pay rent, which wouldn't be the case if we move to subsidised housing. As an old man with no income, how am I going to do that?"
These non-indigenous villagers, who account for the bulk of the population living in villages under threat from development, migrated to the New Territories from the mainland after the World War II and have been residing and farming land owned by indigenous landlords ever since.
That said, a majority of them are, in fact, squatters who have settled on indigenous land, while the rest are either tenant farmers or those who have procured farmland from indigenous landlords without proper documentation.
With no rights to their land, these non-indigenous farmers will be bearing the full brunt of the massive development project, while developers and indigenous landlords are set to obtain lump-sum payments for selling land to the government.
If history is anything to go by, they are expected to mount a fierce campaign against the development, having witnessed how unyielding Tsoi Yuen Village residents were successful in obtaining considerable compensation from the government.
The way in which the government has been engaging – or not engaging – some of the stakeholders of the development would seem to lend credence to their complaint.
While indigenous landlords have been well informed of the development plan and are looking forward to the fortunes they have been promised, tenant farmers have, until recently, been completely oblivious to it.
The prospect of being forcibly removed from their swellings only dawned on them when they attended a poon choi feast one evening in July, during which an indigenous villager burst into uninhibited joy and proclaimed that the celebratory meal was for the successful sale of land.
Dr Chen Yun-chung, a research assistant professor of sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University and a volunteer with the Land Justice League, a group that fights for residents' rights in urban renewal, said: "The government's current way of consultation is to first consult those in power – those with land and the elites; but it never consult the stakeholders who live there (non-indigenous villagers)."
Another non-indigenous villager from Kwu Tong North, Ms Tse, who declined to give her full name, said: "They (the government) have never consulted us about the plan. All the consultations held so far have been a charade, of which our villagers had no knowledge. All we discussed in yesterday's village council meeting was compensation, when in fact we have never – apart from consultation – wanted any payment."
Dr Chen argued, "We need to start with respect; you have to respect me as a legitimate inhabitant of this place and then talk about development. You don't put a gun to my head and say you have to go or the only thing you can talk about is compensation – then this kind of consultation is meant to be a failure."
Back in the public consultation forum, the repeated exchange of incendiary remarks and fists between avid supporters and staunch opponents of the development plan reflected the gaping polarisation among stakeholder groups consisting of developers, indigenous landlords and tenant farmers.
Mr Liu Hing-hung, the current head of Sheung Shui Village, said: "I agree there's a need for development in every city, every era. But what our villagers are most concerned is that the government has acquired vast tracts of land from us to build subsidised flats for urban dwellers, while our voices of concern have been ignored. Are we not Hong Kong people?"
For all the controversy and antagonism surrounding the development plan, there is as yet no consensus on whether the government urgently needs to develop large swathes of arable land in the rural areas to ease housing problems in the urban areas.
According to a press release by Information Services Department, the Development Bureau had stated in a report to the Legislative Council in July that there were a total of 2,154 hectares of vacant land outside northeastern New Territories – in which Yuen Long and Sha Tin account for 786 of them - that had been earmarked for residential developments.
These figures contradict with the 1,200 hectares mentioned by Secretary Chan during the third public consultation. Critics have argued that without a comprehensive survey of available land, it would be unwise to displace 6,000 villagers from the New Territories.
Mr Thomas Yan Sun-kong, vice-chairman of People Power, a political group, argued: "Land in the New Territories does not only belong to its inhabitants, but also to the entire Hong Kong population. If the government wishes to continue with the implementation of the development project, then it should restart the consultation process and take the general interests of Hong Kong as well as the villagers into account."
HKBU's Dr Chen contended: "Instead of looking at land supply, we should look at the distribution of land and give priority to allocating any avaliable land to building public housing. Then we will talk about the Northeast."
Even if there is an agreement on the need to develop vacant land along the border to meet the demand for housing, Mr Hau Kam-man, a member of the Northern District Council who represents the Sheung Shui Rural Committee, said the government should conduct door-to-door consultation with affected villagers instead of holding public forums.
Reported by Brian Yap
Edited by Ada Yeung
An interview with Keith Bradsher
Delegates who do not represent