Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp is hoping to infiltrate one of the city’s most opaque yet powerful institutions, its rural governance committees, by running four candidates in upcoming village elections, whose nomination period ended late last week.
Around 1,400 village representative slots are up for grabs over two weekends of polling in January that will determine the local leadership of the New Territories, a peninsula of rural land and dozens of outlying islands that makes up 86 percent of the city’s territory.
While some slots represent small and remote hamlets, other seats carry significant power in areas eyed by developers and the government to meet ever-growing demand for housing, one of Hong Kong’s most pressing social issues.
The representatives also make up the foundation of a much more powerful system as they sit on influential Rural Affairs Committees. The chairmen of those committees in turn get a seat on Heung Yee Kuk, a century-old rural advisory body with the ear of Hong Kong’s top leaders.
While their numbers are small, pro-democracy legislator Eddie Chu, who represents the New Territories West in the city’s Legislative Council, says it's the first step in transforming a system that is often more associated with corruption and land grabbing in the local media than grassroots democracy.
“Since it is a colonial creation, this kind of three tier [organization] is actually quite intact as a representative system. The problem we are having is nobody dare run in the village representative election from democratic camp since all of us are afraid of gangsters [and] threats,” said Chu, who received death threats in 2016 following a campaign promise to “clean up” rural politics.
“And then there are villagers who are supportive of, for example, preservation of farmland and the environment. There are some areas that can be reformed to make this whole thing a positive power to us towards our environmental movement and democratic movement,” he said.
Neither the Heung Yee Kuk nor its chairman, Kenneth Lau, replied to VOA requests for comment. Lau also declined to be interviewed following a phone call to his office at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
Chu is not alone among Hong Kong politicians or interest groups pushing for reform of the Heung Yee Kuk, with calls coming even from some its members, such as pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho. Chu and the candidates, however, have one the most explicit aims of reforming the governance system from within by running outsiders in the elections, as each village has two representatives, one indigenous and one non-indigenous.
Some of their long-term concerns include opening up meeting records to the public and diversifying the leadership to include more women and non-indigenous villagers. Many leaders remain in their position for years, including Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat, father of the current chairman, who held his position for 35 years.
Local leaders also wield enormous influence over daily life. Village representatives often have a say in issues like parking, garbage collection, sites for local industry, and even road access, as many roads in the New Territories run across private land.
The most difficult issue at stake, though, and one that will take more than a few elections to resolve, is the right of each male “indigenous” villager to build a personal “small house.” While designed as a way to improve rural living conditions, it has been warped by some into a means of building housing developments, an extremely lucrative industry in one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets, according to groups like Liber Research Community, a local NGO that studies rural land dealings.
Paul Zimmerman, a Dutch-born Hong Kong resident, is one of the four candidates running with the explicit aim of reforming rural politics He said the key to change is for non-indigenous residents to become more active in voting and running for local office, as many are unaware they qualify.
While there are a number of restrictions on who can become a village voter, only 86,384 non-indigenous residents are registered to vote this year, compared to 109,092 indigenous voters. The population of the New Territories, meanwhile, is over 3.6 million.
“This is a first attempt. There are very few non-indigenous people active in those village elections. There is one [foreigner] in Sai Kung in one village who has been elected several times... but this is extremely exceptional,” he said.
“That’s going to be a very long process, so this is kind of a first poke at it and it’s really to demonstrate that it’s possible to people,” he said.