Illegal land grabs are nothing new in China. Just last week a group of villagers from Jingbian in Shaanxi protested against a local tycoon, who controls land from a deal struck more than three decades ago between his father and the local government. The original lease was for 15 years, and gave the tycoon the right to use a 10-hectare plot for Rmb1,000 ($160.51) a month, says Hong Kong’s Apple Daily. But 35 years later the billionaire still hasn’t returned the land to the government, villagers thundered. They have been forced to sit on the sidelines while much of it is sold to property developers for expensive apartments.
A film inspired by similar land grabs is doing well at the Chinese box office. Crime thriller Overheard 3 is about the activities of unscrupulous real estate developers in Hong Kong, battling with villagers in the city’s rural New Territories. But Felix Chong, one of the two directors of Overheard 3, says the story is not necessarily about Hong Kong. “Be it in Taiwan, mainland China, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia: the cab driver’s grouse in every place was the same – that property prices are too high,” he told the media. “I always thought it was a problem specific to Hong Kong, where we have this saying cun tu cun jin (an inch of land equals an inch of gold).”
The film, which stars Hong Kong actors Louis Koo, Daniel Wu and Sean Lau, also features leading Chinese star Zhou Xun, who plays a villager leading the fight against the developers.
The producers of Overheard 3, the last installment of a trilogy that started in 2009, said that they were aware that the mainland’s film censors might look dimly on the movie. “Even though illegal land grabbing is a very sensitive issue, we were willing to take the risk because we want to do something thought-provoking. We want to ask the audience, what’s the true meaning of land? Does it give you a sense of security or emotional distress?” Chong told Beijing Evening News.
The bet paid off. The film survived untouched, so much so that some critics have claimed it’s a further sign that more artistic freedom is being permitted on China’s big screens. It has also struck a chord with the mainland audience. Daily takings since the end of last month have been neck-and-neck with the Hollywood blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past, reaching Rmb225 million in total.
“In the film the scenes of villagers protesting against the developers are all too familiar to me. Such protests are either taking place or have already taken place in virtually every rural village in the country,” one fan wrote. “And we are just like the villagers depicted in the film: helpless and easily succumbing to the empty promises of the developers.”
“Overheard 3 markets itself as a crime thriller but it is ultimately a film about the struggles between villagers and developers. In reality, conflict over land ownership has become increasingly common. I particularly like the last scene in the film in which Zhou’s character says: ‘Land is used for growing things, it’s not for you to sell’,” another netizen wrote.
The timing of the film is interesting for another reason. Currently Hong Kong is embroiled in what could turn out to be one of the biggest corruption cases in the city’s history. The trial, which is ongoing, relates to Rafael Hui Si-yan, the former chief secretary in the Hong Kong government, who is alleged to have failed to disclose his links to Thomas and Raymond Kwok, the billionaire co-chairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP). While chief secretary Hui was involved in two projects in which SHKP had an interest – the development of a huge cultural hub in West Kowloon and another major residential project on Ma Wan Island. The prosecution – representing the Hong Kong government – alleges that Hui was the “eyes and ears” for the developer inside the government. In exchange for insider information, Hui received bribes in the form of payments and loans totaling more than $4.5 million, prosecutors have alleged.
Hui and the Kwok brothers have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
During the prosecution, Hui was also revealed to have splurged $4,200 on a dinner at an Italian restaurant and $5,400 on a Bulgari watch. He also had 14 bank accounts and 25 credit cards when he started his term as chief secretary in June 2005. In the year ended June 2007, his cash withdrawals and credit card spending exceeded his official income, says the prosecutor David Perry.
“Because of his extravagance, Hui was willing to give in to his vulnerability. He was willing to trade what he had to sell – the fact that he was the representative of the government with power and influence,” Perry alleges.
The high-profile case has caught the attention of China’s netizens too. Many have expressed surprise that such a senior former government official would be put on trial. Others are shocked by the case, assuming that this kind of thing, while prevalent on the mainland did not happen across the border. Many share the view that Hong Kong has hardly any corruption at all, largely thanks to its investigative body, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, or ICAC.
“Hui is undoubtedly a very capable government officer… Whether or not he gets found guilty, it exposes the dirty dealings between government officials and the property developers. This is so disheartening,” one netizen lamented.
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