Hong Kong's Big White Elephants. (Part 2 of 3)
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
This is the second part of a three part blog...Please read Part 1 of 2 to find out about the Hong Kong government's role in existing infrastructure projects.
Having considered the major infrastructure projects the Hong Kong government has already invested heavily in, it's time to look to the future.
First on the list of the HK government's infrastructure projects is an extension to the existing MTR lines. While the MTR has a property and transport model that seems successful, it's not all positive news. There has been the debacle over the Sha Tin to Central rail link that ran into problems with faulty construction, leading to cost over-runs and unforeseen delays in its scheduled opening. Engineers have also been busy with investigations since cracks and subsidence appeared in a shopping mall and residential complex near to the West Kowloon terminus of the newly constructed high speed rail line. Furthermore, we need to consider the relevant town planning demands, the property developers' wishes, and those of citizens directly impacted by transport infrastructure development. The awkward question is whether the MTR that operates as a business entity can simultaneously serve all its stakeholders equitably.
The other HK government project in the pipeline is the behemoth Lantau land reclamation. This is supposedly meant to help solve Hong Kong's land supply problem as it relates to affordable housing. Its detractors, however, say that its geographic location might be most attractive to mainland Chinese immigrants and those property developers who are likely to make money there. It's noteworthy, that even amidst current protests the real estate market in Hong Kong remains fairly buoyant.
Many Hongkongers are aghast at the Lantau land reclamation plan. It's very costly and it will use a significant portion of the SAR's fiscal reserves. The critics are also wary of the ecological damage the Lantau vision will cause. They are worried about the transport issues that are likely to follow once the place is inhabited. Furthermore they question the wisdom of housing so many people on a manmade island in the face of rising sea levels and more serious typhoons due to climate change. All these concerns and objections have been swept aside by Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam and her pro-Beijing supporters in the Legislative Council (or LegCo for short). It should be noted that with a majority of pro-Beijing legislators in LegCo, and changes to the rules of debate in the legislative chamber, the CE has been able to effectively have her supporters rubber stamp whatever legislation she wished to propose. Furthermore it is apparent to observers that the CE has acquiesced to the wishes of Beijing on more than occasion, effectively turning the model of "One country, two systems" on its head. The election of the CE herself, and the dynamics of LegCo are reason enough for ordinary citizens of Hong Kong to stage a revolt.
Some might say this criticism of government expenditure is a debate that occurs in every country, but the point is that in Hong Kong the debate has not been allowed to occur in a democratic manner. Public consultations have been cut short, and consultative committee report findings largely ignored. One government housing project in Wang Chau, for example, initiated a kind of consultation that only engaged with selected parties who you might say had vested financial interests in the project, rather than a broad and open deliberation with a cross-section of stakeholder citizens. It's also impossible to verify the nature of consultations held in relation to a housing project in Yuen Long while the previous CE, C.Y. Leung, was in office since there has been an almost conscious and ongoing effort by bureaucrats to destroy all public records. The call for an Archives Law also received attention in 2016, when Mr Eddie Chu, a lawmaker concerned about housing plans in Yuen Long, accused Mr Leung’s government of colluding with the rural committee leaders. The government said there was no record of the key meetings that Mr Leung admitted he had with the rural leaders.
Another recent infrastructure fiasco concerns the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). An early proposal for the project to be developed on reclaimed land was overturned in 2006 due to doubts on financing models, criticism of property developer involvement, lack of planning, and criticism of the design that featured an expensive canopy. The CE at the time, Tung Che-hwa pledged to create a "landmark cultural development project". However, that plan was criticized as too costly and lacking vision. The assessment panel, made up of senior civil servants only, was unrepresentative and unresponsive to the public.
As the WKCD project got back on track in 2006, the Hong Kong government established a Consultative Committee to formulate a Recommendation Report. It was tasked with deciding what facilities to offer and how they would be managed in the WKCD. In 2007, a further three-month public consultation was carried out. The first of several project developments was intended to attract tourists to Hong Kong, but the focus of discussion thereafter has turned to the benefits of WKCD for the local residents, both intellectually and economically. Virtually out of the blue it was announced that Carrie Lam herself had been involved in confidential negotiations with a mainland donor who wished to see a portion of Beijing's Palace Museum Artifacts on display in Hong Kong in a purpose built facility in the heart of the WKCD. Controversies have since ensued concerning the initial funding of the planned Palace Museum and WKCD as a whole, as well as the appointment of contractors without a proper tendering process.
Opposition to developmental proposals is a natural phenomenon, especially where 'land resumption' is involved. In the case of the Guangzhou–Hong Kong high-speed rail link the HK government took possession of the needed land. A farming village of about 500 people, Choi Yuen Tsuen, was completely destroyed and now exists as nothing more than historical archives. In other matters related to affordable housing the HK government has shown general reluctance to initiate land resumption. At any rate, many Hong Kongers have given up arguing every case to a government that is hellbent on pandering to masters in Beijing and following their own path to glory in infrastructure monuments.
This is why the people of Hong Kong wish ever more strongly to bring its legislators to account. You may say that any skullduggery and treachery related to infrastructure development in Hong Kong occurs similarly in other jurisdictions too. However, that does not make it right. We, the people of Hong Kong, are wary of the untrammelled influence of wealthy people and those in business who aim to increase their own assets and incomes at our expense. We are also increasingly alert to the overt and hidden sway of authorities in Beijing that directly impact developments here in the SAR. In addition we are fed up with the costly and time-consuming bureaucratic inefficiencies of the SAR government. There ought to be stronger mechanisms of accountability to stop these white elephants in their legislative tracks. We need processes of governance that are open, transparent and accountable. We need a democratically elected government.
This is the second part of a two part blog...Please read Part 1 of 3 to find out about the Hong Kong government's role in existing infrastructure projects. Part 3 of this blog series concerns government's crazy spending on monuments.
Related wethepeopleofhk.com links "Our landlord’s brainwave: Hong Kong people are revolting, so replace the people"
17 July 2020, RTHK, Time runs out for 'Lantau Tomorrow' study. "Legco’s Finance Committee completed its last meeting of the current term on Friday without vetting a funding request for studies related to the controversial ‘Lantau Tomorrow Vision’ project to create a new metropolis on artificial islands off Lantau..."