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

Tue, Jan 08, 2019 - Page 9

Hong Kong, the world’s least affordable property market, has a plan to tackle its housing crisis: It plans to build four artificial islands equal to about one-fifth the size of Manhattan that could house more than 1 million people.

The government-backed plan to create a gleaming property and commercial hub has been tried before — Palm Jumeirah, the palm-shaped archipelago in Dubai filled with luxury developments; Forest City, a housing project for 700,000 people in Malaysia; and Jurong Island in Singapore, which houses chemical and energy facilities.

Yet building artificial islands in Hong Kong has a number of vexing complications, starting with the price tag.

The project would cost at least an eye-popping HK$500 billion (US$63.81 billion) and the tab could double, the South China Morning Post reported.

There are also technical and political challenges — a poll in November last year showed that 49 percent of the public opposes the plan — as well as massive environmental costs, although the government says it has chosen a less ecologically sensitive area for development.

Hong Kong’s plan to create islands in open waters shows the length that governments will go to add housing in expensive, space-starved cities. The rising threat from climate change is also giving governments reason to create “smart and low-carbon” cities, which Hong Kong’s government is planning to achieve for the new islands with renewable energy, green transportation and a higher greening ratio.

Yet with unpredictable weather events, as highlighted in the US’ National Climate Assessment report in November last year, there has been debate over whether potential energy efficiencies are enough to compensate for the massive environmental disruption caused.

“The entire environment would be disrupted,” said Patrick Yeung (楊松潁), ocean conservation manager for the Hong Kong chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, citing potential damage to the marine food chain when microorganisms and other fish are uprooted as a result of reclamation.

“Is there really no other option than to reclaim land?” he asked. “That should be our first consideration.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) last year pitched the plan — called the Lantau Tomorrow Vision — as part of her annual policy address and it is core to her efforts to increase the city’s land supply.

The plan for 1,700 hectare of islands in the city’s central waters, between Lantau Island and Hong Kong Island, would add up to 400,000 housing units for an estimated 1.1 million people starting in 2032.

The plan has run into some early public opposition. Nearly 6,000 people took to the streets in protest three days after Lam announced the proposal and it also became one of the key themes of an annual New Year’s Day protest.

The concept has clear benefits for China’s government, which controls Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” doctrine. Lam envisions Lantau, the city’s biggest outlying island, as becoming the third core business district and an “aerotropolis,” given its proximity to the international airport and the recently opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which serves as a key link to the Greater Bay Area.

The bridge is part of a plan by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to transform the region into a trillion-dollar economy rivaling Silicon Valley.

“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.”