On July 21, an armed mob indiscriminately attacked returning demonstrators, journalists and civilians at Yuen Long MTR station in one of the most violent episodes of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests.
Hong Kong’s reputation as one of the safest cities in the world has repeatedly been cited as a reason for opposing the now-suspended bill. But on this occasion, the police stand accused of colluding with city’s dark underbelly. Victims decried the 39-minute delay before their arrival, the closure of police stations and the poor response of the 999 emergency line, as well as footage of a commander chatting with the men who appeared to be part of the mob.
As of Friday, 12 men have been arrested – with some linked to triads – although certain perpetrators are rumoured to have left the city.
Fingers have also been pointed at Yuen Long’s rural leaders, whom – prior to the attacks – reportedly warned villagers not to leave their homes. According to a Democratic Party councillor, they had been told by China Liaison Office official Li Jiyi at an earlier dinner ceremony not to let protesters enter Yuen Long.
Then on the day, the mob gathered in a nearby village before storming Yuen Long’s MTR station. When riot police eventually arrived, the men retreated to Nam Pin Wai village as an hours-long standoff between them and officers ensued. As Hong Kong reels from what some activists now call a “terrorist incident”, the alleged connections between officials, organised crime and rural leaders have been placed under the spotlight – and not for the first time.
If the person or group behind the violence remains a matter of speculation, does the unique political landscape of the rural New Territories explain how such an attack was able to take place?
The New Territories: A history of cooperation
There are deep-rooted interests in the New Territories originating from the governance, development and planning of land.
When the British leased the New Territories from the Qing government in 1898, the existing inhabitants – the “indigenous villagers” – fought back in the “Six-Day War.” To govern a piece of land ten times the size of the crown colony of Hong Kong and Kowloon, the British needed to cooperate with the village clans. The rural advisory body, the Heung Yee Kuk, was set up to represent the interests of the indigenous villagers in 1926.
After World War II, Hong Kong experienced rapid population growth and industrialisation, and new towns were planned in the New Territories. To gain support of the villagers, the government introduced the Small House Policy in 1972.
Under the policy, every indigenous male villager would be entitled to build a three-storey, 700 sq ft small house – either on his own village land, by exchanging his non-village land with government land, or through a concessionary grant of land.
Rural tradition provided justification for the policy. In turn, the “traditional rights and interests” of indigenous New Territories villagers was enshrined in Article 40 of the Basic Law after lobbying from late Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat.
This April, the High Court struck down the latter two methods of obtaining permission for a small house as unconstitutional, but the ruling will not be enforced pending an appeal.
Yet many male descendants of indigenous villages have turned large profits through the Small House Policy by colluding with property developers. Developers are known to buy up swathes of low-cost agricultural land, and transfer them to villagers as trustees. In turn, the villagers obtain building licenses and sell the land back to the developers, who can effectively develop residential land at a far lower cost than had they purchased that land directly from the government.
This practice entails the making of a false declaration to the government, but prosecutions are rare. The Liber Research Community has estimated that almost 10,000 small houses (23 per cent of those in existence) have been built this way, including 46 percent of all small houses in Yuen Long.
The boom of rural land
The rural land economy was given another boost in 1983, when the Full Court ruled in Attorney General v Melhado Investment Ltd that old crown leases to indigenous villagers containing the word “agricultural” would not actually bind them to using their land for farming. It interpreted the word as merely descriptive of the state of the land in the 1900s.
Henceforth, the rural New Territories witnessed a large expansion in storage facilities, car parks and light industries – “brownfield” sites – all of which were legal so long as no buildings were constructed. The value of “brownfielded” agricultural land steeply increased, and so did the amount of compensation payable by the government for requisitioning that land.
Despite the government’s attempts to slow down changes to the rural landscape through zoning regulations, the Liber Research Community has estimated that New Territories brownfield sites increased from 792 to 1,521 hectares between 1993 and 2017.
Allegations of forcible destruction of farmland through the dumping of waste – to create a fait accompli of “brownfielding” or kick out existing farmers – are now commonplace. Over the course of a week this April, unknown men turned the farmland of a 75-year-old Hung Shui Kiu villager into a mountain of rubble. The district had been marked by the government for imminent development.
Property developers have also been accused of “hoarding” land for years as an investment, waiting for prices to increase before developing it or allowing it to be resumed by the government. The practice has only added to the city’s ongoing housing crisis.
To reform the rural economy, politicians such as Eddie Chu have called for democratising the Heung Yee Kuk. Former assistant director of planning Augustine Ng has even proposed that the government announce the non-renewal of New Territories land leases after 2047 – when most of them will expire – to deflate the property market.
Meanwhile, the non-indigenous population has sometimes complained of being sacrified in rural politics and the land economy. For instance, they were denied the right to vote in village elections until the Court of Final Appeal’s 2000 decision, Secretary for Justice v Chan Wah. Over the past decade, the Wang Chau and Tsoi Yuen Village requisition projects – against non-indigenous inhabitants – were both met with strong activist resistance.
The rural-triad nexus
Furthermore, it has been suggested that organised crime has established a foothold in the New Territories over time. Nam Pin Wai – where the armed mob moved to on Sunday night – is the territory of the city’s second-largest triad group: Wo Shing Wo, according to Apple Daily.
While Chinese triads were historically hired by the Kuomintang government that fled from the mainland to Taiwan, Beijing is known to have established relations with Hong Kong groups long before the 1997 handover. In 1993, then Chinese minister for public security Tao Siju famously told reporters that “some triads love the country and love the party”.
Generally, triads do not profess any explicit political alignment. Yet Sunday was not the first time they have been involved in attacking protesters – in October 2014, the Mong Kok encampment of the Umbrella Movement was assaulted by dozens of men.
In the rural New Territories, the influence of triads may stem from their involvement in the land economy. They reportedly engage in work such as “brownfielding” and evictions to ensure the smooth operation of vested commercial and clan interests. The media often allude to the alleged personal triad connections of certain rural leaders.
In a 2016 Initium Media interview, land researcher Chan Kim-ching explained their role in the context of commercial acquisitions of village land: “The first actor is the village chief, who asks as a consultant for property developers. He will politely discuss with villagers the sale of their land.”
“But if you don’t sell, then I’m sorry, the work will be handed to the triads. Once you publicly expose the incident, they will go back to the original method. They will go back and forth between the approaches.”
Meanwhile, it has proven difficult to police the vast rural landscape and its semi-private villages, and village elections have been marred by a history of organised violence.
“Once the New Territories landlord class have triad backing, it’s like they have an army,” wrote Chan more recently. “They can sway the government’s land policy and ability to negotiate pricing, and influence half of Hong Kong. That’s how the New Territories rural gentry built up their interests.”
But it was during the Leung Chun-ying administration that allegations of cooperation between “officials, business, rural leaders and triads” were brought into the limelight. During his 2012 campaign, he was reported to have dined with rural strongmen in a Lau Fau Shan restaurant. Leung later sued Stand News when a columnist suggested that he himself had a close relationship with organised crime.
Eddie Chu popularised the phrase “officials, business, rural leaders and triads” in 2016 as he campaigned against the demolition of Wang Chau’s non-indigenous villages – an agreement made after the government conducted undocumented talks with rural strongmen. Chu received death threats, and moved with his family to a “safehouse”.
However, in the aftermath of the Yuen Long attacks, Hong Kong protesters directed their ire at a man who possesses – for a New Territories politician – an unorthodox background.
Late on Sunday night, footage surfaced of pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho congratulating white-shirted men in Yuen Long. Ho subsequently defended their actions as “protecting their homeland”, although Kenneth Lau – head of the Heung Yee Kuk – denied knowing where the mob came from.
Although Ho is an indigenous villager from a prominent rural family, he is more commonly described as being on close terms with the China Liaison Office. Local media have speculated that the Liaison Office is locked in a competition for influence in the New Territories with the traditional gentry – who are also not a monolithic group themselves.
In 2011, Ho successfully initiated a reform within the Tuen Mun Rural Committee such that its chairperson could only serve for two consecutive terms. Lau Wong-fat – the “King of the New Territories” who had served as chair for 40 years – was barred from running, and further lost his automatic seat at the District Council. Ho took Lau’s place.
Five years later, as Ho ran for a seat in the New Territories West constituency of the Legislative Council, Heung Yee Kuk members were filmed taunting him when he arrived to canvass for votes. But ten days before the election, fellow rural pro-Beijing politican Ken Chow abandoned his candidacy live on television, and fled abroad.
Since being elected, Ho has made a number of eye-catching public statements – notably, shouting “without mercy” in response to fellow rural leader Tsang Shu-wo’s call for pro-independence activists to be “killed” at an anti-independence rally.
But Ho has sought to distance himself from the Yuen Long mob’s actions. Speaking in a Sunday night Facebook broadcast, he said that he had reminded villagers to obey the law if they wanted to “protect their homeland”.
Hong Kong protesters are planning to march in Yuen Long on Saturday. Aside from voicing their demands against the extradition bill, they will demonstrate against alleged police-triad collusion and call for the government to label last Sunday’s incident as a “terrorist attack.” Co-applicant Michael Mo said that he wishes for the demonstration to be peaceful, and explained that the chosen route would pass through the fewest number of entrances to villages.
However, the police have issued a letter banning the proposed march – rendering participation possibly illegal – while it has also been opposed by rural leaders.
In a widely-shared Facebook post, pro-democracy legislator Eddie Chu has pleaded for protesters not to descend upon the villages, ancestral halls or graves in the New Territories.
“July 21 was a fraudulent ‘protection of homeland’ operation. It lost the hearts and minds of the public, and many indigenous villagers are angry at the thugs, even if they cannot speak out.”
“But if protesters actively vandalise an ancestral hall or grave, it would be considered a declaration of war against their entire clan – whether or not they are triads or were involved in violence.”
“And then, all the leaders of the 27 Rural Committees of the Heung Yee Kuk will have no choice but to take revenge for the destruction of their ancestral halls and graves, and treat all participants in the anti-extradition bill movement as their enemies.”