On an autumn afternoon at the Hong Kong Golf Club, hundreds of dogs — pugs, Pomeranians, Shiba Inus — strolled the verdant grounds with their owners in tow, enjoying rare access to the range that charges new members a $2 million entry fee.
But these impeccable greens, in the northern reaches of Hong Kong, have become an unlikely battleground.
The Hong Kong Golf Club has been fighting a government proposal to carve out less than one-fifth of its 172 acres of land and redevelop it for public housing. The open day for dogs was an effort by the club to rally public support to the club members’ cause in a city known for its soaring inequality and acute shortage of affordable homes.
Hong Kong’s government has come under pressure from Beijing to reduce the wealth gap in line with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s promises of “common prosperity.” But the land dispute puts on picturesque display the tensions between Hong Kong’s attempts to redistribute wealth and the interests of the elite the government has long relied upon for support. The city’s business leaders may be aligned with China’s Communist Party rulers, but many are also stubbornly protective of Hong Kong’s capitalist wealth.
The club has mobilized members to speak out about the public housing plan. Prominent figures in the city’s pro-Beijing political establishment have also criticized the proposal.
“I hope nobody calls the golf club rich and powerful or pins that label on it. Because it is a sport facility after all,” said Regina Ip, a senior adviser to the Hong Kong government and a golf club member herself.
By contrast, Hong Kong newspapers closely aligned with Beijing — eager to push the territory even closer ideologically to China’s Communist Party — have criticized the club, accusing it of ignoring the needs of working people.
“If the golf course development plan is thwarted, the public impression of ‘business colluding with government officials’ will only get worse,” one of the newspapers, Ta Kung Pao, said in an editorial after an environmental review in August effectively delayed the housing plan.
It’s not just avid golfers who are stirring opposition to the land swap. Some members of Hong Kong’s business elite see the city government’s plans to claim 32 acres of club land as dangerous government meddling in the economy.
“A feature of capitalism is a gap between rich and poor,” said Shih Wing Ching, the owner of Centaline property, the biggest property agency in Hong Kong, who has taken up the golf club’s cause, though he does not play himself. “If you try to erase the feature, say by taking away golf, then it’s not capitalism, it’s socialism.”
As a youth, Mr. Shih, 73, was a zealous leftist student who took part in the 1967 labor protests that turned into anti-government riots and were inspired by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to trample traditional privilege. The chaos and trauma of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China eventually turned Mr. Shih against communism, and he later found success selling real estate.
“Deng Xiaoping once said that the horses would keep on racing and the dancers would keep on dancing,” Mr. Shih said, citing a comment the Chinese leader made ahead of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 to suggest Hong Kong would not lose its capitalist verve. “If the horses still race and dancers still dance, then I’d add that the golfers should keep on swinging.”
Both sides in the fight recognize that the small section of the golf club that might be claimed by the government would make barely a dent Hong Kong’s housing crisis.
For more than 10 years, Hong Kong has been recognized by some yardsticks as having the world’s most unaffordable housing market, particularly when comparing median household income to median housing costs.
Even Mr. Xi, China’s leader, has weighed in on Hong Kong’s housing woes.
“Currently, the biggest aspiration of Hong Kong people is to lead a better life, in which they will have more decent housing,” Mr. Xi said on the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China in July. He urged the government to carry out reforms and “break the barriers of vested interests.”
Some pro-establishment politicians have argued that by targeting the golf club, the government is sowing greater hostility between rich and the poor.
Lau Chi-pang, a legislator on the influential elections committee, was criticized by Chinese state media for appearing in the golf club’s YouTube video stream praising the club. Mr. Lau, a history professor who was commissioned by the club to write a book about it, said it had “rich cultural value.”
“If public housing is built on the golf course, it will become a political monument,” he said, adding that if housing advocates win the battle they will “then aim at other private clubs.”
The dispute over the course began in 2018, when Hong Kong’s government solicited public input on where to acquire land for public housing, and a few pro-democracy legislators raised the idea of taking back land from the golf club. The land is owned by the government, which has leased it to the club since 1911.
Polls showed that 60 percent of the public supported the plan. But with the business sector strongly opposing the proposal, the government decided to develop only 32 out of the club’s 172 acres.
Mr. Lau argued that there is other land available for development, especially along the northern area bordering Shenzhen in mainland China, which is more important to Beijing than a few buildings on a golf course.
Late last year, the city received over 6,000 letters from golf club members and others opposing the plan. Their arguments ranged from one-sentence declarations — “I want to play golf!” — to a 500-page long petition listing the golf course’s historic value and the significance of the Hong Kong Open, a prominent international tournament long held at the club.
The dispute has become tied up with the combustible mix of Hong Kong’s crackdown, as opponents of the land swap — even those aligned with Beijing — test the limits of free expression. Some pro-Beijing district councilors have objected to the housing plan, warning of traffic jams and a lack of infrastructure to support the influx of new residents. One councilor even openly declared in a meeting that opponents of the plan would “rise and attack” should it go forward, a bold statement in Hong Kong with a national security law curtailing political dissent.
Further complicating matters is that several former legislators who proposed using the golf course land for housing have either been arrested on national security charges or gone into self-imposed exile.
Grassroots organizations pushing for more public housing have voiced increasing frustration over the delays.
“If the government walks back from the decision, there will be little authority in the future,” said Man Yu-ming, the chairman of the pro-establishment Federation of Public Housing Estates. “We’re not giving up any land we deserve!”
John Lee, the city’s top leader, who was appointed in July, recently said he respected the housing plan, which was conceived of during his predecessor’s administration.
The delays are a sharp contrast to how Hong Kong’s neighbor across the border in mainland China, Shenzhen, has handled its land shortage. That city, an economic hub of more than 17 million people, tapped several golf courses for urban development in recent years. Some deem the Shenzhen government decisive and resolute. Others don’t.
“A debate about this reflects the healthy society of Hong Kong,” said Ronny Tong, an adviser to the government. “Ultimately, it’s an issue of two competing values.”
Mr. Tong, a golf club member, has argued that golf courses attract professionals and investors to Hong Kong.
“I play golf all the time,” Mr. Tong said. “It’s not a sin.”