SCMP Monday, December 4, 2000


Indigenous clans cling to unfair colonial traditions

The dinosaurs of the Heung Yee Kuk are speaking out about an imaginary conspiracy threatening the outrageous benefits which make them our wealthiest and most spoiled minority. The chairman of the rural power bloc, Lau Wong-fat, blasts the Government for failing to guarantee the coddling of former administrations.
Mr Lau is eternally vigilant and ever ready to spring like a sabre-toothed tiger to defend colonial rules which have turned many clansmen into millionaires. Little wonder he has been routinely re-elected for 15 years to the Legislative Council's rural functional constituency seats.
The latest ruckus is over village elections. These rigged ballots ensure that New Territories indigenous residents - about 14 per cent of 3.3 million people - retain total control of local affairs. You only get to vote if your male ancestors were living in the hamlet when the British signed the lease of 1898.
How would rural leaders feel if the tables were turned? I was not astonished to find they would not like it.
Take New Zealand, for an example. In the past decade, 27,773 Hong Kongers migrated to New Zealand. Many hailed from New Territories villages. What happens to their voting rights once they get off the jumbo jet? According to the New Zealand Consul-General, James Kember, any New Zealand citizen or permanent resident who has lived there continuously for a period of 12 months can vote in national elections. They can also vote in local elections.
What would be the reaction of Chinese settlers in New Zealand or Australia, Canada, Britain and the United States if the law deprived them totally and eternally of any right to cast ballots in local polls because of their birth? There would be a global scream of outrage, accusations of racism and indignant headlines. And quite right, too, because it would be a short-sighted, unfair and ridiculous situation.
I asked the village representative of Sai Keng village in Sai Kung, Christopher Lam B what he thought. He lived in Newcastle, England, for 30 years where he enjoyed full political rights. In Sai Keng there are about 1,000 residents, of whom only 300 are indigenous villagers of the Lee, Lok, Ho, Lam and Yau clans. Another 300 indigenous villagers live overseas. There are 140 indigenous village voters registered, many of whom do not live in the village and some who live abroad.
Mr Lam is a comparative moderate. He does not totally reject the idea of "outsiders" voting, but only under special circumstances. This is necessary to "protect the system". "Only indigenous villagers understand the system," he insists. "We are the only ones who know how to run village affairs. We are the only ones who can judge who is a proper villager and is entitled to ding rights."
And there's the crux. Money. Among the bundle of preferential rules that the present Government inherited were Qing-era customs which promised every native son land on which to build a house. This is a licence to print money.
That's why Sai Keng has boomed and the paddy fields are now covered with three-storey villas. Using their ding - land inheritance - rights, the clans have thrown up houses most of which are now owned or rented by "outsiders". While it's fine to make $6 million selling a house to an outsider or charging excessive rents for properties, it is totally beyond consideration that the "outsiders" who foot the bill should have any say in how the place is run.
This strict adherence to Manchu-era customs is touching. Should we also bring back other Qing traditions, like public decapitation and foot binding?
Kevin Sinclair ( ) is a Hong Kong-based journalist.