Hong Kong is infamous for its lack of housing, its expensive real estate, its subdivided flats in which people are packed like sardines. Everyone is compelled to agree, at least with his lips, that this is one of Hong Kong’s pressing problems.
SCMP reports on a proposal to use the Lands Resumption Ordinance to gain land on which to build public housing: ‘Hong Kong developers are estimated to own a huge land bank of 1,000 hectares of abandoned farmland. If the government seizes 150 hectares of usable land, it would [sic] be able to build 170,000 public homes within 10 years.’ I would ask how private developers came to own – or hold, anyway – so much abandoned farmland. If it was by occupying or claiming what others had vacated, in the fashion of squatters, then such developers should have no complaints about squatters coming onto their land and living there rent-free; but even if it was by buying land from farmers who could no longer use the land in profitable ways that could sustain their families, surely it is not only legally valid but also morally sound to compel developers to sell this same land to the state for a crucial public interest, namely the interest of providing 170,000 public homes in a city where average wait times for public housing have grown to ‘5.4 years, up from 2.7 years in 2012’.
Raising the spectre of ‘socialism’ and speaking of seizures without acknowledging that developers would be justly compensated is a scare tactic, not an honest concern. In America, except among radical œconomic liberals, the state’s right of eminent domain has been disputed mostly when the interest in which land is seized is arguably not public (e.g. Kelo v. City of New London); in Taiwan, where the vast majority of the land was once held by 20 families, Chiang Kai-shek forced landlords to sell their land to their tenants in exchange for shares in new light industries, and thus paved the way for a prosperous Taiwan. Allodial title to land belongs to the state because the land belongs to the people. In Hong Kong itself, SCMP says, ‘From 1997 to 2017, the government used the [Lands Resumption Ordinance] 154 times, including 13 times for building public housing. There were eight judicial reviews but none was successful.’ That someone has cried ‘socialism’, and appealed to the Basic Law in support of a hypercapitalism that gained wide currency only by the fall of the Soviet Union, is no reason to sympathize with private land-developers against the needs of the many in Hong Kong who are still waiting for public housing.
In Hong Kong are many, rich and powerful, who do not want to lose what they have. Whether developers who keep farmland idle to make a killing or speculators who buy up flats and keep them vacant to make profits from sales later on, they are the kind of people of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke: ‘Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!’
The judgement of God comes,
But the wicked erect excuses;
The living God will judge,
And as nothing are they swept away;
Like sticks in the torrent of his righteousness
Or ashes of a forest fire,
When the Lord in his anger appears,
To purge the earth by his grace,
Their bones are broken like matchsticks,
And like wax melt their joints,
Before the coming of the Word,
The judgement of the Holy One.