The convicted criminal Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – the most senior government official to have been jailed – completed his sentence last week, pitifully telling the media about his ‘suffering’.

He was incarcerated for misconduct in public office but has escaped censure for his much bigger legacy of initiating white elephant projects frittering away billions upon billions of dollars.

As Chief Executive Tsang was desperate to leave his mark on Hong Kong with more so-called legacy projects than ever before initiated in a single surge of policy grandeur. The SAR’s citizens are still picking up the pieces.

Donald Tsang
Donald Tsang.

In 2007, just before the financial crisis set in and Tsang yet again started throwing public money around like dishwater, he proudly unveiled no less than ten major infrastructure projects.

Only two of them have actually been completed. One, the ill-thought-out rail link between the airports of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, was abandoned. Two, despite endless problems, have completion dates in sight while the other projects are way beyond schedule. Indeed three of them are not even off the drawing board.

There are no prizes for guessing that the completed projects are those most closely associated with the political mission of drawing Hong Kong physically closer to the mainland in terms of transportation.

Thus the Express Rail link to Guangzhou is up and running alongside the newly opened bridge to Macau and Zuhai. Both projects were completed at a frantic pace, in the case of the bridge costing many lives that remain unacknowledged following completion.

Despite the fatalities and the rush both projects came in well beyond schedule and way above budget. Most importantly, neither of these links have proved to be meeting any real demand by users.

The railway is drawing around two-thirds of the lowest estimate of passenger traffic while the bridge is little more than a joke when it comes to use by any form of transportation other than tourist buses.

lantau reclamation protest
A child stands next to a sign that says, “Say no to white elephant infrastructure projects.” Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Another project, the highly ambitious West Kowloon Cultural District, had to be cut back while it was still on the drawing board and is so way beyond schedule that all original opening plans have been conveniently forgotten.

Nevertheless, one part of the project has actually been completed, the Xiqu Chinese opera centre, but not without controversy as local Chinese opera groups say that the prices being demanded for performances make it more or less impossible to use the premises. This leaves state-funded Mainland groups to fill the space.

The only other part of the WKCD that is moving ahead at any real speed is yet another Mainland-linked project that will see some of the contents of Beijing’s Palace Museum put on display in a building that was not even part of the original plan but was foisted on the complex by Carrie Lam while she was up North collecting Brownie points.

Also nearing completion is the now infamous Sha Tin to Central rail link, plagued by cost overruns and delays. It is at the centre of a major scandal over shoddy workmanship allegedly caused by pressure to complete the project regardless of safety.

Less controversial and more quietly moving along is the Tuen Mun to Chek Lap Kok link. But what exactly has happened to the once much discussed Lok Ma Chau Loop,  which in reality is little more than a Hong Kong financed technology project for Shenzhen that was sold as being a great Hong Kong – Shenzhen joint venture science park, presumably building on the ‘great success’ of the Cyberport property development that masquerades as an innovation centre and the ever-growing  Science Park, which has resulted in… well what exactly?

Anyway, this loopy loop is currently going nowhere fast despite the HK$20 billion of Hong Kong taxpayers’ money earmarked for its first stage of development.

Kai Tak
A government conceptual design of the future Kai Tak area. Photo: GovHK.

Of the remaining projects, all of which are supposedly aimed at helping to resolve the shameful housing crisis, only one, the Kai Tak development project, has even reached the basic land formation stage.

The three areas in the Northern New Territories designated for new town development lack funding agreement but then again they offer no Brownie points in Beijing and will only be of benefit to ordinary Hong Kong people, so obviously have been relegated to a lesser priority status.

By any logical standards, Tsang’s megalomania projects have overtaxed Hong Kong’s construction abilities and proved quite unrealistic in terms of completion dates and budgets but most importantly in terms of demand.

In a system of proper checks and balances Tsang’s dreams of immortality with his projects would have been decisively kicked back but no such system exists in Hong Kong.

Instead the Legislative Council with its shiny new pro-government majority is curbing legislators’ ability to question government policy while shovelling through whatever the administration puts before them, even when it is crystal clear that they have no idea what they are endorsing, a point uncomfortably made by the Chief Executive, much to the annoyance of her supporters.

Taxpayers need feel little pity for the legislators and even less for the ‘sufferings’ of a former Chief Executive whose hubris is extracting a toll on Hong Kong to this day and for many more days to come.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship