The LegCo Elections and the Political Ecology of the New Territories

The LegCo Elections and the Political Ecology of the New Territories
Photo: Eric Cheng

What you need to know

How the 2016 LegCo election became a critical moment of the 30-year-long agricultural development and movement in Hong Kong.

On Sept. 9, Hong Kong environmentalists launched a petition entitled “Stop Violence and Threats; Uphold Environmental Justice.” [1] Within six hours, 86 organizations and 1,621 individuals had co-signed it (the deadline for co-signing is Sept. 13). [2] Two key points should be noted. First, “everyone has the rights to live in a healthy environment, to enjoy the freedom from fear, and to maintain a harmonious relationship with nature.” Second, “we support not only Eddie Chu (朱凱廸), but also the values that he insists and the principle of urban-rural harmony in the green movement.” From an environmentalist perspective, I aim to provide general readers with a descriptive account of the political ecology in the New Territories. Moreover, I analyze how the 2016 LegCo election became a critical moment of the 30-year-long agricultural development and movement in Hong Kong.

Transformation of the agrarian society in the New Territories

Governing the New Territories took the British colonial government huge efforts. The Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories have formed the (post-)colonial city of Hong Kong. In 1841 and 1860, the Qing Dynasty (China) respectively lost Hong Kong Island and Kowloon to Britain after two wars. In 1898, the New Territories (north of Boundary Street) and the outlying islands (including the Lantau) were also leased to Britain for 99 years. [3] When the colonial government took over the New Territories, the local villages mobilized themselves against its troops; in the 20th century, these villages also came into land conflicts with the government.

New categories of communities emerged under the colonial rule. The British entitled the lineage communities who claimed to own land before 1898 as “indigenous people.” For those villages established after 1898, their residents were only recognised as “non-indigenous people.” During the mid-20th century, the frequent unrests inside China caused huge amount of refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. To solve the urban problems of housing, job opportunities, and food security, the colonial government encouraged these immigrants to move to the New Territories for farming. These new farmers in the New Territories are also recognised as “non-indigenous people” since then.

Agriculture was once a profitable sector. After the Second World War, waves of indigenous people emigrated to other countries for better livelihood. The new immigrants in the New Territories thus converted a large amount of paddy field into market gardening and husbandry for their living. They also relied on their relatives and friends to settle in the new land. It should be noted that the Kadoorie Family and also the Joseph Trust Fund provided generous resources to support Hong Kong’s agricultural development, including the infrastructure, seeds, and breeds. [4] The golden age of agriculture in the New Territories was seen in the 1960s and ‘70s when farmers contributed to the economic development of Hong Kong through official farm produce distribution systems. As their produce could be sold at a good price, farmers’ standard of living also improved.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s, China, which opened its market and export channels under its Open Door Policy, has dominated Hong Kong’s food supply; additionally, trade liberalization and the aging and shrinking farming population (the number of farmers dropped from 34,000 in 1971 to 5,800 in 2011) have also caused the self-sufficiency rate of food supply in Hong Kong to drop continuously. After 2000, the local supply of vegetables decreased to about 2 percent, much lower than that in the 1980s (80 percent).

Table #1: Changing Farming Area in Hong Kong (1963-1994)

Year

Area of Farmland Practicing Market Gardening (Hectare)

Area of Abandoned Land (Hectare)

Total Area of Farmland (Hectare)

1963/64

3,335 (only vegetable)

955

13,618

1973/74

4,258

3,484

12,723

1983/84

2,760

4,110

9,630

1993/94

1,600

4,040

7,900

Source: Annual Reports of the Agricultural Department of Hong Kong (1963/64, 1973/74, 1983/84 and 1993/94) ; complied by the author (Cheng 2009)。[5]

Another reason that is closely related to the decline of Hong Kong agriculture is the changing land use. From the mid-20th century, the colonial government developed satellite cities (new towns) in the New Territories to solve land shortage and population pressure. Under this circumstance, the New Territories became the arena of negotiations and tensions among the government, indigenous people, and land developers. Non-indigenous villages were also involved in these development projects through their networks in Heung Yee Kuk (Rural Council), which was controlled by the indigenous elites.

The immigrants who became farmers in the New Territories and hence non-indigenous people were tenants with low intention to own land before the 1990s. The low land price (unfavourable for speculation) and the stability brought by the long-term oral contracts with their landlords made them comfortable with their tenant status. Rather, they used their saving to improve their on-farm squatter houses with better materials to enhance their living standards. However, the government could compensate as little as several thousand dollars to make them leave in case of development-led squatter abolishment. After the squatter census in 1981, any new squatter housing was made illegal. Until the incident of Choi Yuen Village in 2008, these farmers could only resort to indigenous elites to tackle political and social problems, such as negotiating with the government for resettlement and better compensation.

The changing land use from the 1980s reshaped the rural dynamics. Besides the abovementioned farmland abandonment, urbanization and a court case have also led to polluting activities, such as container storage, on farmland. [6] The economic interests drove the government, indigenous people enthusiastic in land speculation, and land developers made alliances to each other. In the past three decades, the new trend greatly hit agricultural activities, but provided new social space for social activists respectively advocating environmental protection, green lifestyle, and agricultural revitalization to form a loose yet flexible community.

圖一
Photo: Eric Cheng
An organic farm and squatter houses behind

The interlocking rural and political structures as well as the agricultural and land issues affected the 2016 LegCo election by engendering multiple and conflicting voices. Moreover, the dynamics resulted in the incident that the newly-elected lawmaker Eddie Chu was intimidated before and after his landslide victory. To understand why the environmentalists voiced out their concerns and their petition to protect the “values of rural-urban harmony” that Chu played a key role to strengthen, readers need to understand how the agricultural movement contributed to the sound result of Chu’s election campaign.

From anti-nuclear movement to 'latent' organic movement

While studying the organic food movement in Hong Kong between 2007 and 2009, I heard that some environmental activists began their direct actions in the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. Some also turned to the organic food movement, joining others who introduced this foreign idea to Hong Kong to practice organic farming (which was unlikely a direct action in a narrow sense). Considering the establishment of the Produce Green Foundation (1988) as the start of Hong Kong’s organic food movement, I suggested that this bottom-up practice has lasted for three decades, a period of the “latent” development of Hong Kong’s agriculture movement.

I found that the organic food movement sheds light on lifestyle, consumption, and production to respond to various social issues, such as environment protection, food safety, gendered division of labour, social relationships, poverty, and aging population, etc. The participants’ contribution can be witnessed in social, business, and environmental organizations. The participants also held a number of identities and titles to address different issues. Compared to the government, their strategies were more flexible. For instance, various groups and individuals made their short discussions and temporary actions on the issue of anti-GMO papaya campaign in 2008 and 2009. Their cooperation was loose but intimate, with both negotiation and protests. Later on, several organizations continued to extend their influence on the issue of GMO food and farming to keep the public discussion ongoing.

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Photo: Eric Cheng
The Non-GMO Campaign and the United Force’s demonstration during the mass protest on July 1, 2011.

I found the organic food movement participants learned from their personal experiences about the land issues in the New Territories. For example, organic farmers found it difficult to have unpolluted land and water resources; moreover, the landlords could turn down the proposal of lease because they were waiting for land speculation. This happened especially after the 1990s, the time when land prices skyrocketed. Organic farmers found they could hardly get any long-term lease. The situation became worse when the increasing demand for good-quality farmland caused the rise of rent. In other words, organic farming, which requires long-term planning and practice, was limited by the political economy of land issues in the New Territories. In this relatively low-profile environmental movement, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department played as the role of an intermediary to help organic farmers communicate with landlords who positively consider that farming can revitalize their communities and facilitate the improvement of environmental quality around their living places. However, practicing organic farming was still difficult in the New Territories due to my previously mentioned political economy.

I did not collect my informant’s final decisions of their votes during the 2008 LegCo election, because of their privacy and also the lack of public consciousness on agriculture-related issues. What I felt was that environmentalists evaluated the candidates with their past performances in social issues that were relevant to the environmentalists’ daily lives. Noticeably, the organic food community still has no vote to determine their representative in the LegCo election. Without someone to represent them in the political arena, I argue that the organic food movement, and thus the agricultural one, is a latent kind of mobilization. Moreover, before 2009, agricultural issues in the New Territories attracted only a minority of citizens. Although the mass media often reported farmers’ stories and an increasing number of urban dwellers visiting the farms for leisure activities such as strawberry picking, very few Hongkongers paid attention to what crises were happening in the New Territories.

Nevertheless, the latent organic food movement brought the transformation of Hong Kong agriculture that strengthened the subsequent agricultural movement and Chu’s election campaign. In 2000, the Hong Kong government officially included organic farming into its policy. It helped the conventional farmers (practicing market gardening with pesticides and chemical fertilizers since the 1950s) to convert to organic farming. Besides, due to the food safety episodes in China, Hong Kong agriculture drew local residents’ attention to its functions as providing safe food, protecting the environment, and producing local produce. I consider the organic food movement a success by sowing seeds and providing nutrients for the rapid growth of the agricultural movement that accelerated after 2009.

The confluence of different (social) movements

The eviction of Choi Yuen Village (literally, “The Veggie Farm Village”) led to resistance of a large scale in 2009. The government’s plan of constructing a new high-speed railway connecting China and Hong Kong affected the farmers’ housing and rural lifestyle in this village in the New Territories. Eddie Chu and his collaborators, who had already been involved in urban heritage conservation activism, set up their support group to assist the villagers to negotiate with various bodies. These included the representatives of indigenous villages, Heung Yee Kuk, the district council, and the LegCo. Chu and the others also mobilized scholars, social activists, and the mass media to propose alternative plans. Their ultimate goal was to prevent the government and the Mass Transit Rail Corporation (MTRC) from sacrificing the non-indigenous people, who had already been living on the same land for at least three generations in five decades.

The Choi Yuen Village movement had later developed into the Anti-High-Speed-Rail rally, gathering over 10,000 protestors during the LegCo meetings debating on the bill of the rail construction. The protestors took the opportunity to expose the conflicts of interests of some pro-government lawmakers, the government, the MTRC (both as the railway operation and a property developer), and the indigenous elites. Although the bill was passed and the movement was dismissed, the rally participants were inspired and some of them even organized the subsequent protests and movements in various social and political issues, including the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

圖三
Photo: Eric Cheng
A scene of land confiscation in Choi Yuen Village, 2011

After the Anti-High-Speed-Rail rally, an increasing number of Hongkongers paid more attention to agricultural and land issues. For example, various campaigns and petitions resisting the development in northeast and northwest New Territories gained popularity among the citizens. To maintain public awareness, Chu and his collaborators organized the Land Justice League to intervene in the land politics in the New Territories. Besides, researchers (e.g. Kim-ching Chan, Johnny Lau, Camillie Lam, and Sung-ming Chow) and their institutions, such as the Liber Research Community, provided the public with alternative discourses and proposals about how the future of the New Territories (and Hong Kong) should be. Moreover, organic food communities and environmental groups joined the abovementioned activists and researchers to address the agricultural and land problems. Their slogans include “Farmland for Farm Use Only” and “There will be no local farm fest (an official event) without local farm produce.” These new discourses, together with the practice of permaculture and upcycling, strengthened the community as a whole.

圖四
Photo: Eric Cheng
The protest during the local farm fest in 2011

2016 LegCo election: The political ecology in rural-urban dynamics

In 2016, the LegCo election featured the Hongkonger’s identity crisis, China’s intervention, and also the new political spectrum within the pan-democratic camp. Eddie Chu as a candidate in Western New Territories was hardly under the spotlight of mass media in the beginning. The first poll also showed that he only got 2 percent support. Because of the lack of campaign fund, he even needed to launch a crowdfunding for petty donations (HK$999; US$128) to support his campaign. As an overseas student, I did not participate in or observe his campaign in person; but through social media and my conversation with friends, I found that Chu’s supporters and campaign team used their creativity and environmental consciousness to show Hongkongers how an election campaign could be done with bicycles and recycled materials. Many people endorsed Chu when the date of vote was approaching. [7] Chu’s popularity increased also because he publicly addressed the issues of livelihood, democracy, and self-determination of Hongkongers, etc. He attempted to provide another possibility for the Hongkongers to consider on board in future. The election result surprised the Hongkongers that over 80,000 votes went to Eddie Chu. The landslide victory made him the “king of votes” (a nickname he personally disliked).

圖五
Photo: Eric Cheng
A LegCo lawmaker from the agricultural and fisheries sector was accused of betraying Hongkongers in 2011

I cannot explain every single voting behaviour among these 80,000 Hongkongers. What I propose is that the petition mentioned earlier in this article delineates the changing political ecology in the New Territories. Integrating Agrawal’s (2005) [8] social theory of environmentality and James Scott’s (1999) [9] “seeing like a state,” I argue that the Hongkongers have learned to use a perspective of environmentalism, which incorporates sustainability, democracy, and activism, to understand what is happening in Hong Kong’s agriculture. From this perspective, they have linked their daily lives with the society and nature through the state-society interactions. Even though the state tried to disseminate its power to everywhere, the governed may not follow all the game rules it has set. The environment movement, which is confluence of various movements, is now a collective process that reflects life politics and political voices. Every action can be a gesture to resist the government. Therefore, the expansion of influence of the government, land developers, and indigenous elites to their daily lives may not bring a gloomy future to Hong Kong. Inspired by Tsing’s (2005) [10] recent work on the interactions between human and matsutake (a kind of mushroom), I suggest that we should keep our hope to understand the impacts of the appearance of the ruin (such as the pollution brought by the destruction of arable land).

The intimidation against Chu in the recent days has threatened the Hongkongers who desire for “the right to live in a healthy environment ... [the freedom] from fear, and … a harmonious relationship with nature.” If physical violence takes place when institutional violence fails to control every citizen, resistance will only grow stronger. In Hong Kong, eating a bowl of vegetables is now a matter of politics. Let’s hope we can sit down and enjoy some “apolitical” vegetables in the future.


[1] Source: Facebook page of Conservancy : https://www.facebook.com/cahk1968/photos/a.124866861163.127612.120372376163/10155363592156164/?type=3&theater

[3] Source: 劉潤和 。1999。《新界簡史》 。香港:三聯出版。

[4] Source: Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association (1979) KAAA, (Hong Kong: Eurasia Publishing Corporation)。

[5] Cheng, Siu-kei. 2009. Adopting a New Lifestyle: Formation of a Local Organic Food Community in Hong Kong. Unpublished Master Thesis: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. http://producegreen.org.hk/image/en/en90image/Thesis_EricCheng.pdf

[7] The facebook page of Eddie Chu: https://www.facebook.com/dickpatheung/?hc_ref=SEARCH&fref=nf

[8] Agrawal, Arun. 2005. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[9] Scott, James. 1999. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[10] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

The Chinese version of this article is published at http://whogovernstw.org/2016/09/10/ericcheng1/ .


First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang