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Rights and wrongs: Hong Kong’s small-house policy for indigenous villagers is outdated and unfair

Government officials can no longer bury their heads in the sand; it’s high time they sorted out a mess that’s been brewing for decades

The much-criticised small-house policy is under the public spotlight again. This came after 11 villagers and a property developer were jailed for defrauding the government in a housing scam in connection with the policy. The case is being taken up by rural affairs body Heung Yee Kuk, which argues that the policy allowing each male indigenous villager to build a three-storey villa is part of the traditional rights protected by the Basic Law.

The villagers certainly have the right to appeal against the conviction and sentencing in a higher court. But whether the small-house policy is a constitutionally protected right is debatable. Villagers are adamant that the construction of villas under this scheme, commonly called Ding Uk, are part of their traditional rights. But critics say the Basic Law does not specify what the rights are, adding that outdated and unfair policies should be scrapped.

Until the constitutional issues are put to the court for a ruling, the policy will continue to be a subject of debate. But that does not alter the general perception that the scheme is unfair, unjustified and unsustainable.

Introduced in 1972 as an interim fix for housing in rural areas, the scheme is prone to abuses. Some villagers have violated the rules by selling their rights to property developers to build houses for sale. The latest court case involved 11 villagers who had illegally sold their rights to build “small houses” to the developer for a total of HK$4.3 million.

It is difficult to see how the policy can be sustained. As the scheme applies to adult male indigenous villagers descended through the male line of residents of the 642 villages in 1898, the demand for Ding Uk is potentially infinite. Given the limited land supply in Hong Kong, the policy is simply unsustainable. Thousands of applications are still waiting to be cleared.

The background of the scheme may have something to do with the way the British took over the New Territories. But it does not make sense to dwell on the so-called traditional rights for indigenous villagers when urban and rural areas have been reunited under Chinese rule for nearly two decades. The policy is utterly unfair to non-indigenous people. Not only is it outdated and discriminatory today, it also splits the community and goes against the core values of equality and fairness.

That officials are still dragging their feet is disappointing. Years have passed but a so-called review is still going nowhere. The task is not easy. But delaying tactics are hardly the way forward.

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