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Hong Kong's Big White Elephants. (Part 1 of 3)

Updated: May 14, 2020

This is the first part of a three part blog...Please read Part 2 of 3 to find out about the Hong Kong government's role in existing infrastructure projects.

Most tourists visiting Hong Kong know there is a Big Buddha statue in Lantau that is well worth visiting. However, they may not be so conversant with what many HK people call the 'big white elephants'! These are costly Hong Kong government funded infrastructure projects; HK people don't generally consider that they bring much direct or immediate benefit to themselves. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views Hong Kong as its own asset and wants a return from it. It's worth considering how these projects and their relative success or failure is contributing to the current social unrest in the SAR.

1. The High Speed Rail

Opened in September 2018, the HK$84billion (US$10.8billion) 26 kilometre rail link connects Hong Kong with Shenzhen across the border in mainland China and continues on to Guangzhou. Not unlike civil construction projects in other countries, there was a three year delay before it reached completion, and there were cost over-runs by about 30%. Before the rail line opened there were heated political disagreements about the controversial customs checkpoint 'co-location agreement' that allowed mainland Chinese authorities almost full jurisdiction over part of the West Kowloon terminal leased to them. Despite legal opinion that this arrangement was an violation of the SAR's Basic law, the project was pushed through LegCo to its completion with the support of mainland authorities. Since the rail line began operation passenger numbers have been much, much lower than expectations.

2. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge (HZMB)

HZMB is a 55-kilometre construction that consists of a series of cable-stayed bridges, an undersea tunnel, and four artificial islands. It was originally due to be opened in 2016 but was finally completed in 2018, becoming the longest open-sea fixed transport link on Earth. Its massive cost of US$18.8billion was shared by the governments of mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. During the construction there were a number of controversies: delays and cost overruns, several worker deaths and injuries, faked safety testing of materials, questions about the integrity of a sea wall adjacent to the undersea tunnel, and the falling number of an endangered species of dolphin due to disruption of their habitat. A further complaint has been that the Hong Kong government entered into a funding deal with the other governments that put it at a disadvantage. More so, since there are claims that the HKZMB basically serves the needs of business elites on the mainland. In order to avoid congestion there are restrictions on how many vehicles can use the bridge, and current estimates are that it will take over 70 years for the mega-project to break even financially. On the other hand, those who favour the project say it's an important link for the three cities in the Pearl River Delta, supporting China's economic plan for the region.

3. The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal

Built on the runway of Hong Kong’s former Kai Tak Airport, the three-storey cruise ship terminal opened in 2013 at a cost of HK$7.2 billion. Allowing two cruise ships to berth simultaneously, it boasts a large floor area and a spacious rooftop garden with magnificent views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula. The facility which is government owned but privately leased and operated has seen an increase in passenger traffic over the years. However, its limited success seems dogged by its aim of trying to fill dual roles as both a transport facility and a tourist attraction. This has not been good for those retail and restaurant businesses who were persuaded to open there. Since it opened it has been criticised for its poor public transport connections, and the terminal remains deserted most of the time.

4. Disneyland Theme Park

What some also consider less of an elephant, but an elephant nevertheless, is the government stake in the Disneyland theme park. Perhaps they're thinking of Dumbo? Could there be something Micky going on here? Opened in 2005, the government is 53% shareholder in the Lantau tourism venture that pays royalties to Disney each year before shareholders receive any dividend. The park is tiny in comparison with better known Disney theme parks elsewhere, and though it has added more attractions since it opened, it still mostly operates at a loss which the HK taxpayer has to pay. There is criticism that goes back as far as 2002, that the government entered a lopsided deal and failed to get a guarantee from Disney that a competing park would not be built in Shanghai.

5. Ocean Park

Ocean Park is the second largest amusement park in Hong Kong, after Disneyland. As well as being an amusement park, Ocean Park Hong Kong aims to merge entertainment and education, including conservation advocacy.

Opened in 1977, Ocean Park became popular, but 22 years later, it was unprofitable and widely expected to close due to the new Hong Kong Disneyland. However, the Park responded with a HK$5.5 billion development plan that saw it expand to over 80 attractions and rides, and steadily grow visitor numbers to 7.6 million in 2014, making it the world's 13th most visited theme park, and one of the largest theme parks in Asia. Half of all visitors now come from mainland China, in growth that parallels rising mainland tourist visitor levels to Hong Kong over the same period.

Between 1979 and 1997, Ocean Park was most famous for its signature killer whale, Miss Hoi Wai. However Ocean Park has been criticised by wildlife advocates for practices including the wild capture of large sea animals, such as dolphins and orca, and the presentation of shows featuring such animals performing - or suffering, depending on your view! See video below.

[UPDATE: December 2019 Ocean Park reported a deficit of HK$557 million for its last financial year ending on June 30, more than double its losses for the previous 12 months. This is the fourth year in a row of losses.]

[UPDATE: 14 January 2020 HK Government requesting from the Legislative Council HK$10.6 billion funding for redevelopment of Ocean Park. This request is in spite of a decline in November 2019 tourist numbers to HK of 56% and no further dialog nor concessions by the HK Government to the protesters who represent the majority of HK people! Tourists from wealthy Western democracies have little demand for entertainment which abuses animals. Inspite of the demands of local animal rights activists there are no plans to fundamentally change Ocean Parks current policy of abuse of animals].

[UPDATE: 14 May 2020 Animals rights groups have called on embattled Ocean Park to come up with a "comprehensive retirement plan" for its animals, saying the park should no longer breed or bring in more animals even if it is given a financial lifeline. Meanwhile, in crisis due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Ocean Park has said that if it doesn't get HK$5.4 billion in emergency funding, it may close down as early as next month, with the fate of its 7,500 animals up in the air.]

These government projects have variously been touted as essential investments for HK to bolster tourism and to fulfil a role of some sort within the Greater Bay Regional Plan - a Chinese initiative for development and economic expansion in the Pearl River Delta that coincides with the broader Belt and Road initiative. It is not the first time HK has tried to attract more tourists to the SAR. "Ocean Park" opened in HK in 1977, but it now struggles with falling numbers of visitors and animal rights issues. And seeking to make a place where digital enterprise might find a natural home while riding the popular 1999 wave of investment in information technology, the HK government came up with the idea of the "Cyberport" development. The hype has lost its glamour now, especially since the development was mired in controversy ("Like so many others!", did I hear you say?). Critics argued that the government should not be involved in real estate, then the 24-hectare waterfront project was awarded to a single developer without the rigours of the usual government tender process. The public is therefore right to be distrustful of legislators promoting pet projects that promise much, because too often these infrastructure projects have not gone according to plan.

Many HK people consider the massive increase in tourists from Mainland China anathema to lives of peace and harmony in Hong Kong. There is also a global issue arising about the environmental and social impact of burgeoning tourism on local communities. In 2018 mainlanders accounted for more than 75% of all visitor arrivals. Protesters have objected to what they consider 'mainlandisation', with a massive influx of immigrants from mainland China also contributing to population growth (over 800,000 between 2003 and 2014) being just one aspect of a deliberate process that is disenfranchising Hong Kong citizens of what they recognise as their home. Two other examples of this pursuit of the tourist dollar can be seen in the changes that have occurred along Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui over the years that largely caters to luxury brands and mainland shoppers, and the phenomenon of parallel traders that have altered the nature of border towns.


This is the first part of a three part blog...Please read Part 2 of 3 to find out about Hong Kong's infrastructure projects still in their planning stages.

Part 3 of the blog is about the building of monuments considered unwise spending.

Related wethepeopleofhk.com links "Our landlord’s brainwave: Hong Kong people are revolting, so replace the people"

In developed economies due to changes in animal rights animal circuses and seaworlds which exploit animals are no longer accepted and are not financially viable.

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