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HONG KONG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Newly-elected Hong Kong lawmaker Eddie Chu is determined to shake up what he sees as an unfair use of land in the mushrooming metropolis despite having faced deaths threats because of his crusade.
Chu says he wants to break a "vicious cycle of collusion" between rural community leaders and property developers eager to scoop up land in the New Territories, the city's lush rural frontier with mainland China.
At the heart of the problem is an outdated, colonial-era housing policy, he says, which needs urgent reform because it has become subject to a roaring black market trade in property rights.
Demand for land and housing is high in the city of 7.3 million people, which has one of the world's highest population densities and one of the most expensive property markets.
"Affordable housing is a major problem in Hong Kong," Chu said in an interview in a cafe at the city government headquarters, as two plain-clothes police officers looked on.
"The last remaining rural areas of Hong Kong are controlled by some very powerful people and they don't like that I'm exposing what they're doing."
Chu is one of six "localist" lawmakers who won seats in the 70-member Legislative Council last month after campaigning for more self-determination for Hong Kong, a former British colony now a specially administered Chinese territory.
Chu, 39, who rose to fame as an environmental campaigner when he fought plans to demolish the iconic Star Ferry pier in 2006, has been under round-the-clock police protection since he began receiving death threats soon after his election.
His election platform was partly aimed at exposing alleged collusion between the government, business, rural and criminal syndicates in the New Territories, and their manipulation of the colonial-era policy.
The target of Chu's campaign is the "Small House Policy" introduced by the British in 1972 to win the support of indigenous villagers for development in the New Territories, a vast area of farmland, old villages and new towns.
The policy gives male heirs of indigenous villagers the right to buy land from the government below market rates to build a small house once in their lifetime and build a three-story house of no more than 2,100 square feet(195 square metres).
Those that qualify are men who are able to trace their ancestry through a male line to someone resident in the New Territories in 1898 when the British took control.
These so-called "ding rights" are not transferable but Chu and other campaigners say the rules, which are bitterly resented by many in overcrowded Hong Kong as a privilege for a small group of people, are being abused.
It is estimated that more than half of small house occupants are non-indigenous people, defeating the original intention of the policy, Chu, a former journalist, said.
"The Small House Policy was flawed from the start," said Chu, explaining that from the late 1960s the colonial government began a massive land resumption in the New Territories to develop new towns.
Property developers, keen to reap profits from the expanding population's need for housing, also started to buy from indigenous land owners.
The high demand for land resulted in many of the indigenous villagers being left with no land to exercise their right to build a house and choosing to sell their rights to developers instead.
Hong Kong Development Secretary Paul Chan said anyone making false representations or engaging in fraudulent acts under the terms of the policy would be liable to prosecution.
"This will continue to be our position," Chan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
In a high-profile case, a court convicted 11 indigenous villagers and a developer last November of deceiving the government in a small-house building scheme and obtaining $HK4.3 million ($554,000) between 2008 and 2011.
Such prosecutions are rare, however, as the black market trade in ding rights is hard to trace, said Chu.
A succession of Hong Kong lawmakers has promised to reform the policy but have run into fierce resistance from the rural committees that represent villagers.
Development Secretary Chan said while "one area Hong Kong certainly should and can do better is providing more space for its population...," reforming the policy is not a priority.
"Such a review inevitably involves many complicated issues in various aspects such as legal, environment, land use planning and demand on land, all of which require careful examination," he said.
The government is pressing ahead with at least four several major land development projects in the New Territories, which will provide about 200,000 housing units of which some 60 percent would be subsidised housing, Chan said.
But the government's slow pace of tackling reform has contributed to the problem and encouraged even criminal elements to take advantage of the situation, said Chu.
"The New Territories inherited the colonial way of doing things and it's been made worse by the government not doing enough to stop the policy from being abused," he said.
A legal expert who declined to be named said the matter was politically sensitive too because indigenous rights are guaranteed by Hong Kong's Basic Law, a fact rural leaders often use to defend the policy.
"It's a huge issue that no administration has been wanting to tackle seriously," the expert said.
Chu plans to propose a democratic reform of the powerful Heung Yee Kuk, a statutory advisory body established in 1926 and made up of representatives of the New Territories' rural committees.
The body has its own legislative seat and also a say in who will be the city's next chief executive, due to be elected in 2017.
"Those who think the Kuk is a club for uneducated but rich tribespeople should first have an understanding of the history of the New Territories before they make criticisms," Kingsley Sit, director of the Heung Yee Kuk Research Centre, told the South China Morning Post newspaper last month.
Kuk officials have urged the government to give low-interest loans to indigenous villagers to help them purchase land to halt illegal sales of "ding" rights.
Critics like Chu say the Kuk is also encouraging environmentally unfriendly practices, such as allowing agricultural land to be turned into parking lots, junk yards and electronic waste recycling depots.
In a recent prominent case, the government decided to build a high-rise public housing estate on the site of a village of about 200 people instead of on the site of a light industrial site nearby controlled by a local strongman, said Chu.
"This case is not a very big one in terms of numbers of people but it reveals a very deep-rooted phenomenon in the New Territories - and everything that is wrong with land policy here," he said.
Reporting by Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories