SCMP Tuesday, April 24, 2001

One village, two chiefs


When the British took over Hong Kong 160 years ago, they first annexed Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula south of Boundary Street. The area to the north up to the Shenzhen River, known today as the New Territories, was later leased to the British and ruled somewhat differently from the rest of the colony.
The New Territories was deliberately kept rural, and rural customs and traditions were respected. Villages were given a certain degree of autonomy, with leaders popularly elected by their respective villagers. These village chiefs then formed a governing council called the Heung Yee Kuk.
During the 1970s, villagers in the New Territories were called "indigenous inhabitants" to distinguish them from the urbanised people then moving in large numbers to the New Territories. (Technically speaking, indigenous people are those who can trace their male ancestry to the New Territories in 1898.) These indigenous inhabitants enjoyed certain privileges.
The Heung Yee Kuk, under the enlightened and capable leadership for about two decades of its chairman Lau Wong-fat, has transformed itself into the most successful pressure group in Hong Kong. Mr Lau actively participated in the drafting of the Basic Law and succeeded in having the indigenous villagers' rights and privileges recognised by the British and Chinese governments and enshrined in Articles 40 and 122.
I have never regarded the villagers as "indigenous" because, to me, there is no such thing as the New Territories. The people of Hong Kong are all (or almost all) Chinese people living on Chinese land. The indigenous identity of indigenous people from the New Territories is bogus, just as the New Territories were defined artificially to suit the colonialists.
But unless you share my view that these New Territories villagers are not members of an indigenous minority but ordinary Hong Kong citizens like you and me, you have to respect their rights and privileges as defined by their folklore and tradition. Logically speaking, we cannot regard them as indigenous minorities and force them to conform to our social norms.
But this is exactly what has been happening since 1996. That year, a new law was enacted to allow female indigenous villagers to inherit land. The purpose of this legislation was sexual equality, on which all of us "non-indigenous people" might agree, but it runs contrary to indigenous traditions. The Heung Yee Kuk sued the Hong Kong Government but lost the case in the High Court, just before the handover.
The Kuk's nightmare did not end there. In another recent court decision, non-indigenous residents of the New Territories won the right to vote and stand in village elections. Again, to the rest of us, it is only fair that all people living in a village should have the same right to participate in governing that village. But just imagine if whites were allowed to become chiefs of Native American reservations in the United States, and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of the issue.
To most people in Hong Kong, the indigenous villagers, symbolised by the Kuk, are conservative peasants bucking modern civilisation. But indigenous villagers perceive the situation differently. They have a tradition to uphold and their minority rights to protect, and feel unfairly treated under the tyranny of the majority.
The Basic Law does not do a good job of safeguarding indigenous villagers' traditional rights; Article 40 is vague about which traditional rights are to be respected. If the Kuk choose to fight to the bitter end, its only option would be to ask the National People's Congress (NPC), which has the sole authority to interpret the Basic Law, to spell out clearly what the law means on this point and then present this interpretation to the SAR's Court of Final Appeal.
But the Hong Kong public would not favour such a move because this would amount to inviting intervention from the central Government - for the same reason, the SAR Government does not want to appear too enthusiastic in seeking NPC assistance. The NPC itself is reluctant to meddle in the SAR's internal squabbling.
Mr Lau, with his usual resourcefulness, has the idea of having two chiefs in disputed villages - one chosen by the indigenous people and one chosen by everyone, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. The indigenous chief would take care of traditional village affairs and be qualified to join the Kuk; the other chief would not be qualified to join the organisation. To most of us, this seems a win-win solution - and it has been welcomed by the Government.
But the more traditional indigenous villagers see this as a sell-out. To them, this is not a compromise in which both sides have had to make sacrifices. With two chiefs, they think, the doors to the villages will be wide open. With the New Territories undergoing rapid urbanisation, more villages will be inhabited by non-indigenous people; "one village, two chiefs" will become the rule rather than the exception. The power of the indigenous people will shrink, and the power of the Kuk will evaporate.
Sadly, this is the inevitable fate of a dwindling minority. Politics favours the powerful. During the early years of colonial rule, villagers in the New Territories put up stiff resistance to the British and earned autonomy. In the 1970s, they were holders of precious land sought for development. In the 1980s and early 1990s, they played a pivotal role in the Sino-British negotiations and the handover. Now, their community is weak and getting smaller.
"One village, two chiefs" is probably the best outcome for all parties.
Lau Nai-keung is a political commentator and delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.