Tue, Jan 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Expensive Hong Kong artificial island plan meets local resistance

Advocates for the plan say it is the only way to create enough land for housing and build a smarter city, but detractors have said it ignores Hong Kongers’ immediate needs, while pleasing China

By Natalie Lung  /  Bloomberg

“It may be going in the right direction for China, but that’s not going in the right direction for Hong Kong,” said Steve Tsang (曾銳生), director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.

“Simply getting Hong Kong into an integral part of a wider PRC [People’s Republic of China] development project diminishes Hong Kong in terms of its special character and special contributions to China, and does not enhance it,” Tsang said.

As the public continues to be disenchanted by out-of-reach home prices, the supply of public housing has lagged behind targets and has driven up the average waiting time for housing to 5.5 years, the most since 2000.

A steady inflow of Chinese migrants is increasing the demand, and the islands are the “most efficient and fastest way” to accommodate them, said Sonny Lo, a professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Nearly one-fifth of public housing applications in the first quarter of last year came from new arrivals from China and this remains a contentious topic in local politics.

The government argues that one possible solution mentioned for development, so-called brownfield sites — barren farmland, open-air parking lots and cargo terminals in the northern part of Hong Kong that can be converted for residential use — are insufficient to relieve the land shortage in the long term.

Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan (陳茂波) said that the government might issue bonds to finance the project, amid concerns that the city could run small fiscal deficits in the coming years.

The government could set up a project-specific company to manage more profitable projects upon the islands’ completion to attract funding from banks, insurers or pension funds, said Tommy Wu, a Hong Kong-based senior economist at Oxford Economics Ltd.

Former Hong Kong secretary for financial services and the treasury Chan Ka-keung (陳家強) said that the project is fiscally defensible because the government could eventually recover costs, as the created land would have significant commercial value.

“We have to think about what kind of economy we will have in the 2030s and 2040s. It should be a technology economy, a green economy, a digital economy with smart infrastructure. Where in Hong Kong can you build that kind of place?” Chan said.

A group of 38 economics professors led by HKU professor Richard Wong Yue-chim (王于漸) echoed that view in a joint statement, saying that the government could reap profits from selling land and society could benefit from hidden economic value from infrastructure and community facilities.

Many of the professors, including Wong, who is on the board of major developers, have served as consultants to the government and pro-Beijing think tanks.

Yet critics like Albert Lai (黎廣德), founding vice chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party, have said that the project would sacrifice Hong Kong’s more urgent needs to an expensive and environmentally questionable undertaking.

“The government doesn’t care about the people’s livelihood and well-being at all,” he said. “If they cared, resources would be spent on projects that could bring more immediate improvement to livelihood.”

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