Outsider Hong Kong lawmaker vows shakeup of vested interests

NEWYou can now listen to Fox News articles!

The death threats began arriving soon after pro-democracy candidate and environmentalist Eddie Chu won a stunning Hong Kong legislative election victory earlier this month.

Middlemen, Chu won't name them so as to not jeopardize a police investigation, outlined the assassin's recruitment, what he would be paid and when the hit would come.

Chu, whose shoestring budget campaign won more votes than any other candidate in the Sept. 4 election, says the threats stem from his campaign promise to smash collusion between the government, real estate developers, "triad" criminal syndicates and rural kingpins who benefit from suburban redevelopment projects at the expense of ordinary villagers.

"All of these people are working with the Beijing government to destroy the rural areas of Hong Kong," Chu said in an interview at an outdoor cafe at the city government headquarters complex. Two plainclothes police officers kept watch nearby.

A former British colony that now is a specially administered city under Chinese rule, Hong Kong is best known for its neon-lit skyscrapers. But beyond Kowloon's fringe of rugged peaks lie the New Territories: 86 percent of the city's land area.

Powerful vested interests supported by Beijing control the vast swath of farmland and old villages outside the space-starved city's downtown core. Increasingly, such areas are being razed to make way for new public housing estates to accommodate an expanding population.

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the city has remained mostly peaceful and calm, despite massive, non-violent pro-democracy protests two years ago.

After the threats, Chu moved his family out of their home and sought police protection while he prepares for his new role as a lawmaker in Hong Kong's semi-democratic Legislative Council.

"It's not a bad thing to face this kind of challenge just after the election," he said in an interview. "It's a very good reminder to me and my team that we are stepping into a dangerous area."

He believes there's more "political violence" to come.

The son of a tailor and a bus-ticket seller, Chu had a "typical city boy" upbringing, he says. After studying English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong he worked for the independent newspaper Ming Pao.

Eventually he quit and moved to Iran, where he learned Farsi and wrote freelance articles from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After returning to Hong Kong, Chu began campaigning for environmental and heritage preservation. He fought government plans to demolish the historic Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier, chaining himself together with other activists in an eventually futile attempt to stop the wrecking crews. In 2010, he and other activists tried but failed to stop the government from flattening a village to make way for a high-speed rail line connecting Hong Kong with mainland China.

Chu's grassroots campaign for the Legislative Council, with hand-painted banners, struck a chord with residents frustrated that the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" protests failed to yield concessions from Beijing.

He and five other activists won seats in the 70-seat legislature.

"It's the first time people have felt some kind of hope in a politician who can bring ideas developed in the Umbrella Movement into real practice," said Samson Yuen, who lectures on politics at the Open University of Hong Kong.

Yuen expects the effort to shake up the rural power structure will dominate Hong Kong's legislative agenda during its coming four-year term. It will be "quite messy and chaotic," he said.

Chu says the first thing he plans to do after being sworn in is to propose democratic reform of the pro-Beijing Heung Yee Kuk, or Rural Council, a statutory advisory body representing New Territories indigenous villagers that's one of Hong Kong's most powerful special interest groups.

The Heung Yee Kuk has its own legislative seat and gets to help select the city's top leader. Originally, it represented villagers whose families lived in the New Territories before Britain gained control in 1898. After World War II, the colonial government sought its help in gaining land to build suburban housing estates, and in return gave village male heirs the right to three-story houses.

Estimates of the "indigenous villager" population are hard to find, but the vast majority of Hong Kong's 7.2 million residents migrated from the Chinese mainland in the past century.

Though it represents a small minority of Hong Kong residents, the Heung Yee Kuk's land privileges and support for China's communist leaders before Britain handed Hong Kong back to Beijing have made it a formidable power broker. Critics accuse it of colluding with triad gangs and encouraging environmentally unfriendly practices, such as allowing farm fields to be turned into parking lots, junk yards and electronic waste recycling depots.

Hong Kong residents forced by sky-high property prices to live in distant New Territories suburbs resent their lack of say in choosing local leaders, who they complain neglect essential community needs such as parking, trash disposal and emergency services.

In one prominent case, the government opted to build a high-rise public housing estate on the site of a village of about 200 people instead of a light industrial "brownfield" site nearby controlled by a rural strongman.

"The government is afraid of touching such land so it prefers to destroy the environment rather than making use of a brownfield site," Chu said.

Political observers say Chu will likely have a hard time mustering enough votes for a shakeup in the Legislative Council, where the majority of lawmakers support Beijing.

Apart from its strong backing from Beijing, the Heung Yee Kuk is a "very coherent body trying to safeguard their own benefits and indigenous rights," said Chung Kim-wah, a politics professor at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University.

Still, "green activist" Chu and other new, pro-local rights lawmakers hope to build support for democratic "self-determination" for Hong Kong at a time when Beijing, having pledged to leave the city's legal system and civil liberties intact for 50 years, is tightening its grip.

He isn't advocating independence, but wants Hong Kong to have the right to rewrite its "Basic Law," a charter outlining its relationship with Beijing under a "one country, two systems" formula.

If Hong Kong's fractured pro-democracy camp could unite around the principle of self-determination and win more Legislative Council seats in future elections, "this may be a nonviolent way to force Beijing to sit down in front of us for political talks," Chu said.


Follow Kelvin Chan: