How Green Was My Island?

18 January 2016 – A sea of green on a sea of blue — it’s what Lantau looks like on a satellite map. Despite covering 13 percent of Hong Kong’s land area, the island has been spared the pell-mell development that characterizes more central areas. That may soon change.

On Sunday 10 January, at a time when many Hongkongers would have been enjoying the island’s tranquility, the Lantau Development Advisory Committee (LanDAC) released its first term work report. The grandly titled, “Space for All” (English synopsis) paints a dynamic portrait.

There will be a north Lantau housing, economic and commercial corridor; a leisure, entertainment and tourism node in the northeast; a new core business district on a manmade island, and an enhanced conservation and leisure area.

Population projections are bullish! By 2030, Lantau’s population is expected to triple from today’s 110,000 to 338,000, with a potential rise to over 1 million people in the long term. Of course, this will all bring jobs! Specifically, the LanDAC estimates 176,000 new positions by 2030 and over 376,000 new roles in the long run.

It all looks rosy until one begins to poke at the numbers. That is where the current rationale for the island’s development begins to unravel.

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Source: “Space for All”, LanDAC

According to the Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong will grow by 718,000 people through 2030 from a 2014 baseline. In other words, the LanDAC expects Lantau to absorb one-third of new Hongkongers during the period. The territory’s population is projected to peak at 8.2 million in 2043, suggesting Lantau must account for 100 percent of the department’s long-term projection to meet its estimated capacity.

As for employment, the LanDAC may not have fully contemplated the impact of aging. In fact, Hong Kong will lose 178,000 workers by 2030. While delayed retirement and greater female labor force participation may fill some of the gap, it is hard to imagine that Lantau will fill 176,000 extra jobs by that year without cannibalization of other districts or massive labor importation. In short, Hong Kong should not need a new economic corridor or core business district.

Nor may it need a new “leisure, entertainment and tourism node”. Despite much hand wringing among retailers over suddenly lackluster tourist numbers and competition from foreign destinations, the first 11 months of 2015 still brought a small rise in total visitors (Update: Later statistics show a 2.5 percent decrease for the whole year, which, following years of double-digit increases, still suggests a market softening rather than a crisis). The sky has neither “fallen” nor is it “the limit” for milking the tourist dollar. Might it be more worthwhile to focus on refreshing and rebranding existing sites?

As for residential housing, a priority of the current Chief Executive, 12 January brought news from Hong Kong University that only 45 percent of previously proposed residential projects in some designated areas actually produced flats. Reasons include developer-caused application delays as well as “inflexible and stringent” statutory requirements. That’s foregone non-Lantau housing for 450,000 people.

None of this suggests that Lantau’s development is undesirable. But observers should, at minimum, take a closer look at the LanDAC’s priorities. One would expect a body that holds such an important development portfolio to be diverse, representative and accountable, and to have Hong Kong’s best interests at heart.

“Great” Minds Think Alike

Alas, the LanDAC is neither diverse nor representative. It is composed of the Secretary for Development, nine other officials, and 20 “non-official” members.

“Non-officials” are not necessarily political outsiders. In fact, 10 of them are part of the ruling political class, a group that includes pro-establishment legislators and district council members, officers in appointed statutory bodies, and even an ExCo member. There is also a senior researcher from the One Country, Two Systems Research Institute, a well-known pro-establishment think tank. The committee’s one pan-democratic legislator must feel isolated.

Another six members hold senior titles in major enterprises. The remaining two are academics – one a transportation expert and the other a lonely conservationist.

Small business owners, entrepreneurs, social welfare groups and civil society voices with an interest in Lantau’s development are absent. So when the Lantau Development Alliance raised concerns over the island’s potential degradation after the LanDAC work report’s release, nobody should have been surprised. Likewise, the Tung Chung Community Development Alliance, which favors playgrounds, markets and start-up spaces, had grounds to claim that “the facilities proposed don’t fit the residents’ needs”.

As for accountability, each individual is accountable to senior officials and to the Chief Executive, as is common in advisory bodies. In this light, it is rather interesting that nine members also sat on the 2011 election committee that chose the Chief Executive.

Only seven members are simultaneously accountable to the general public through geographic Legislative or District Council elections. Of these, just four owe their offices to Lantau voters.

Whose Priorities?

The LanDAC’s concern for Hong Kong’s interests is also questionable. On paper, it exists to provide advice that helps Lantau “capitalise on its advantages as the confluence of major transport infrastructure linking Hong Kong, Macao and the western Pearl River Delta, so as to meet the long-term development needs of Hong Kong.” Sustainable development and conservation is its second priority.

Who decided Lantau would be a confluence of transport infrastructure, and how did they arrive at the existing plan? According to a LanDAC paper, the committee took after a “Lantau Development Task Force”, founded in 2004 and composed entirely of officials.

The 2004 plan already included preliminary indicators for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge (HZMB) as well as a new theme park, a resort area at Cheung Sha beach, a leisure and entertainment node, and many other characteristics of the existing plan. It also included a park for logistics – part of the LanDAC’s recommended strategic positioning.

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The 2004 Task Force plan

Why were these proposals chosen? As a January 2002 Planning Department document clarifies, Zhuhai planning authorities and Guangdong researchers originally proposed a bridge to fill a “missing” link in the Guangdong Coastal Expressway, a strategic project of the provincial government.

This led to a 2003 joint study on a cross-estuary transport link, conducted by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)’s Institute of Comprehensive Transportation. It predicts up to 65 million passenger bridge users by 2020 – more Hong Kong’s entire 2014 visitor arrivals. It also forecasts up to 4.4 million TEU in containerized cargo crossings. Hong Kong’s total container throughput has been falling since 2011.

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Guangdong DRC Bridge Plan from 2001

After the State Council approved the study’s call for shipping, aviation and tourism development, an intergovernmental bridgework coordination group was established.

Therefore, the pro-establishment and business-friendly LanDAC has basically “enhanced” the development plan of an all-government task force. That task force adopted priorities set in 2003 by a mainland think tank, acting on orders from the Hong Kong government and a mainland ministry in line with Guangdong’s preferences. The LanDAC’s priorities are based on overoptimistic, decade-old projections as well as the wishes of Hong Kong’s neighbor.

A Pickle of a Process

Complaints about the membership and perceived democratic failings of advisory committees and statutory bodies are not new. The Hong Kong Democratic Foundation raised concerns as early as 2003.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong has few other mechanisms for involving citizens in territorial policymaking. By nature, district councils have a limited geographical scope. And, public consultation exercises, while common, usually invite little more than cosmetic changes to predetermined policy outcomes.

Ambitious civil engagement experiments have occurred before. For example, environmental and professional organizations were allowed to nominate non-official representatives to the 2004 Harbourfront Enhancement Committee (HEC). During the HEC’s Southeast Kowloon Planning Review, residents were permitted to comment in forums, focus groups and workshops prior to the statutory plan’s creation. Such innovations are exceptions in Hong Kong.

No such experiments are planned for Lantau. According to the 2016 Policy Address, the government will begin a public consultation on the LanDAC’s blueprint in the first half of 2016. As the current plans are backed by over a decade of momentum and official determination, the consultation’s outcome seems predetermined.

Politics Before Livelihoods

For years, Hongkongers have told pollsters that they are more concerned with economic and livelihood issues than with politics. Yet politics shapes the very policymaking that impacts economies and livelihoods.

Ultimately, Hong Kong will spend at least HK$83 billion to complete the HZMB. The territory will also pay multiple billions more on the LanDAC’s proposed reclamations, infrastructure projects and other “enhancements”, thereby altering large portions of Hong Kong’s largest and greenest island. The eventual sum will equate to billions not spent on other issues – from the wealth gap to education to retirement protection.

As the upcoming consultation document rolls off the presses, readers should ask themselves one question: Is a Guangdong highway project really worth the trade-off.

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