Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam bulldozes ahead with Lantau Island reclamation idea...but at what cost?

Shirley Zhao
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Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam bulldozes ahead with Lantau Island reclamation idea...but at what cost?

It was one of the largest demonstrations in Hong Kong this year, with an estimated turnout of 6,000.

“No artificial islands!” the protesters chanted, as they marched through the business district of Hong Kong Island, on October 14. “We have a say in Hong Kong’s tomorrow!”

Observers said it was remarkable so many turned up, just days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced a massive reclamation project to add 1,700 hectares for a new metropolis and homes for 1.1 million people.

Lam did not put a price tag on the project east of Lantau Island, which is expected to cost upwards of HK$500 billion (US$63.8 billion) and take the next two or three decades to complete.

“Pouring money into the sea,” read the placards some protesters carried.

“Disaster for generations to come,” read others.

The huge Lantau Tomorrow Vision project is part of Lam’s grand plan to develop Lantau and its surrounding areas into a new metropolis. It is set to be the city’s largest and costliest infrastructure project.

Lam waxed lyrical as she described how the area would benefit from a “double gateway” – Hong Kong International Airport in north Lantau connecting it to the world, and the soon-to-open Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that passes through Lantau linking it to the Pearl River Delta.

But the reaction since she unveiled the blueprint on October 10 suggests Lam has a lot more explaining – and convincing – to do.

Criticism has come not only from her long-time detractors but also some of her closest advisers.

Even politicians who believe she is right to get started on the long-term project now may hold back from expressing support, anxious not to upset voters ahead of next year’s district-level elections.

“I think the middle class has been triggered,” said lawmaker Tanya Chan, of the pro-democracy Civic Party.

She found the large turnout for the anti-reclamation march “unusual”, given people had only three days to react to Lam’s announcement.

Another rally a day earlier, to protest against the government ban on opposition lawmaker Lau Siu-lai running for a Legislative Council seat, drew only about 100 people.

Chan thought the big turnout against the Lantau plan reflected people’s concerns that the massive, expensive project could have an effect on future generations.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, said Lam might have overestimated the public’s faith in the administration.

“For some Hongkongers, the government is not a very competent performer

Lau Siu-kai, The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies

He said Hongkongers remembered that other grand proposals by previous chief executives often went unfulfilled, or suffered serious delays and budget overruns.

“For some Hongkongers, the government is not a very competent performer,” he said.

There are also questions about whether powerful and wealthy players had lobbied Lam.

Yeung Ha-chi, of land concern group Liber Research Community, said Lam’s blueprint bore a striking resemblance to a proposal by Hopewell Holdings chairman Gordon Wu Ying-sheung in the late 1980s.

According to recently declassified documents in Britain’s National Archives, the property tycoon proposed reclaiming land between Lantau and Hong Kong Island for a new airport and cargo port, but the government rejected the idea.

Before Lam’s policy address, the Our Hong Kong Foundation, a think tank founded by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, unveiled a similar reclamation proposal. Tycoon Wu, though not a member of the foundation, was invited to its press conference about the proposal.

Yeung said Lam appeared to have “taken directions from the rich and powerful”.

“I think it is outrageous,” he said.

He said the Lantau proposal was a “grandiose gamble” on Hong Kong’s future, because its success appeared to turn on China’s economy continuing to grow.

He said: “Who knows what will happen in 30 years’ time?”

A Development Bureau spokeswoman did not comment on Yeung’s suspicion of tycoons’ influence, but she said the government started planning for areas around Lantau as early as 2004.

“The government fully understands the concerns of the public on the [proposal] and will firm up details ... to consult the public in due course,” she said.

What about that task force?

The timing of Lam’s announcement has proven awkward for the Task Force on Land Supply, which she set up to seek a consensus on ways to deal with Hong Kong’s shortage of land.

The 22-member panel, led by Stanley Wong Yuen-fai, a member of the Housing Authority, has been holding public consultations since April and has two months to go before concluding its work.

It has been asking for views on 18 measures to deal with a predicted long-term shortage of 1,200 hectares for housing and economic development, including a proposal to reclaim 1,000 hectares off Lantau.

Lam had been expected to wait for the panel’s report and use its findings to back up whatever action she proposed to increase land supply.

So it came as a surprise when she went ahead and announced the Lantau project and set the goal of creating 1,700 hectares.

“Many task force members were very surprised by the announcement, not least because it came before we finished our consultation,” said task force member Wong Kwun, a former president of the Federation of Public Housing Estates.

“What surprised us most is that the 1,700 hectares came out of nowhere. From the very beginning, we’ve only been talking about 1,000 hectares.”

His only explanation for Lam’s seeming haste was that she might have needed a “selling point” in her second policy address.

Another task force member, architect Vincent Ng Wing-shun, said: “The whole point of the consultation was to establish a ‘popularity basis’ for a future land supply plan, so that she can carry out the plan more smoothly. She was the one who asked us to listen to the public wholeheartedly. I don’t know whether she has now forgotten about consistency.”

Ng said task force members were concerned Lam may have damaged its credibility.

If its final report said people were in favour of reclamation, he said, the public might think the task force distorted the result to suit Lam’s purposes.

But if its final analysis showed most were against reclamation, Lam would find herself in “an embarrassing situation”.

‘Not throwing money into the sea’

Not everyone believed Lam was wrong to announce the Lantau project.

Former director of planning Ling Kar-kan said a project of such scale and complexity required a lot of technical feasibility studies and only after that could there be informed debates over costs, environmental impact and safety risks.

“There will be many statutory procedures to go through before any construction work can start, and every step can be dragged down by opposition, judicial reviews and battles in the Legislative Council,” he said. “That’s why we need to start as early as possible.”

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Even assuming there is no judicial review, no filibustering by lawmakers and no overwhelming opposition that may drag out every step of the process, completing all necessary procedures would require at least four years, Ling said.

“The chief executive started as a civil servant. I think she completely understands how time-consuming everything will be,” he said.

He also said it was “meaningless” to argue over the project’s price tag now because any estimate of cost would require detailed studies.

He recalled that when the colonial government proposed a major port and airport development strategy known as the Rose Garden Project in 1989, the city’s fiscal reserves stood at only about HK$60 billion, and the project eventually cost HK$155 billion.

It comprised important infrastructure items, including Hong Kong International Airport and the Western Harbour Tunnel.

“The government had the determination to start the project because it knew it was an investment in the future, not throwing money into the sea,” Ling said.

Former secretary for transport and housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said Hong Kong should not repeat the mistake of failing to plan for long-term land supply, which has resulted in today’s lack of land and skyrocketing property prices.

He said he believed Lam’s goal of 1,700 hectares was just a “conceptual vision”, and feasibility studies would determine whether that should remain.

“Even if we have short-term solutions, if there are no land resources in the long run, it will not be good,” Cheung said. “Because it’s such a long process, a decision has to be made today.”

An uphill battle in Legco

One thing that is certain is that Lam can expect an uphill battle gaining support in the Legislative Council for her ambitious plan.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai, Civic Party chairman Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu and Council Front member Eddie Chu Hoi-dick all said their parties would vote against funding requests for studies related to the proposal.

Charles Mok of Professional Commons, a coalition of pan-democrats from the trade-based functional constituencies, said members had “serious reservations” over the proposal, but had not yet decided their position.

It would be acceptable to reclaim 1,000 hectares as we all agree that’s the only way to source land in Hong Kong. But why couldn’t she just wait for the report of the task force, which has also suggested reclaiming 1,000 hectares only?

Democratic Party veteran

A Democratic Party veteran, who preferred to stay anonymous, said it was “foolish” of Lam to suddenly announce the plan to reclaim 1,700 hectares.

“It would be acceptable to reclaim 1,000 hectares as we all agree that’s the only way to source land in Hong Kong,” he said. “But why couldn’t she just wait for the report of the task force, which has also suggested reclaiming 1,000 hectares only?”

He said Lam’s “unwise” move had stirred a public outcry which could have been avoided. Now some pan-democratic lawmakers who would have approved reclamation are considering a harder position.

“Developers are smiling now,” he said. “The government will have no bargaining power in negotiating with them if it fails to produce new land.”

Lam also has to face the prospect of even pro-Beijing lawmakers hesitating to back her plan wholeheartedly, fearful of consequences in the district council elections next year, said sources.

But Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, one of Lam’s top advisers, who sits on the Executive Council, claimed his camp did not feel much pressure despite the public outcry.

The largest party in the pro-Beijing camp, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, released a statement on Thursday voicing support for Lam’s proposal. But, tellingly, it called on the government to release more information.

Party chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king said: “The government has to strengthen communication with citizens… and allay various concerns.”

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