Suspicions that our government is no longer running anything very much in Hong Kong these days will not have been allayed by an interview this week with the Dear Leader, Ms Carrie Lam.

We should perhaps note here that the interview was not conducted by me, so this version of it depends on the alert ears and nimble pen of The Standard’s Michael Shum.

Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Ms Lam was asked to comment on a strange suggestion from the Hong Kong Real Property Federation (whoever they are) which involved 60 square kilometres of reclamation to solve the housing shortage.

This reclamation should take place, the federation suggested, round Guishan Island. There are two obvious drawbacks to this suggestion. One is that the island is off the south eastern tip of Lantau. It would be a long commute to almost anywhere.

The other problem is that the island is not currently part of Hong Kong. It is not in Hong Kong waters and is administratively part of Zhuhai.

These points did not, curiously, come up. Ms Lam’s first objection to the plan was that “President Xi does not favour reclamation due to environmental concerns”. This is heartening news, which will no doubt be a cause of rejoicing to endangered species everywhere. President Xi’s concern for the environment is nice, though a bit like hearing that Hitler was kind to dogs … true, but maybe beside the point.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Apparently, though, the presidential concern for the environment does not extend to the Lantau Tomorrow plan, which envisages a huge reclamation in the Western Anchorage.

This is a puzzle because, obviously, there is only one environment. A reclamation east of Lantau should, you would think, be just as damaging as one south of Lantau. No man is an island, as Mr Donne had it. In environmental terms, no island is an island.

Ms Lam went on to say that she had heard various proposals for mainland spaces of one kind or another being used to enlarge Hong Kong, but she had “never heard the central government mention such a plan”. Has anyone asked?

Then we came to the big surprise. I quote: “These suggestions would mean wrecking the central government’s policy for Hong Kong housing problems, as Beijing attaches great importance to the environment”.

Leaving the environment out of it for the moment, the question which now arises is of course why the central government has a “policy for Hong Kong’s housing problems”. No doubt the central government is entitled to have opinions, make suggestions, or offer advice. But have we now reached the stage where the role of the Hong Kong government’s Housing Department is merely to carry out a policy determined in Beijing?

Photo: Wikicommons.

I realise that the “high degree of autonomy” we were once led to expect has been much eroded over the years but if we no longer control such manifestly local issues as housing then there seems little left for the expensive and elaborate machinery of consultation and government to do.

Well, Ms Lam is apparently concentrating on “mid- to long-term policies”. On these it seems she has some decision-making power still, but it is not being shared with the rest of us: “As we would need to solve a lot of problems to develop land, regardless of the size, I therefor chose to develop 1,000 to 2,000 hectares of land at one go.”

The problems to be solved? Those pesky people who share President Xi’s affection for the environment. Here is Ms Lam on the shifting political sands: “In the past, society was not that concerned about Victoria Harbour, the wetlands and conservation in general. But now, people will rail against the government for these issues, causing delays to development plans. Developing land is at least eight to 10 times tougher compared to 1997.”

Never let it be said, though, that Ms Lam has not picked up the proper buzzwords: “If we solve land problems by rezoning sportsgrounds and building houses wherever we see a gap, it would be highly unsustainable. It is only a short-term pain-killer.”

Photo: GovHK.

Ms Lam appears to think that the rezoning of sports grounds and filling of gaps would eventually run out of sports grounds and gaps. This is not what people usually mean by “unsustainable”. What they mean by unsustainable is projects which inflict irreparable damage on the environment, like … well reclamation.

Really whether the grounds and gaps approach is sensible depends on the size of the grounds and gaps concerned. People who want less space devoted to sport do not have their eye on what we usually mean by a sports ground: a football pitch or a tennis court. They are referring to the rolling acres devoted to golf and horses.

Filling in the gaps does not really do justice to the large areas of the New Territories which are devoted to mysterious small industries, or the even larger areas which are occupied to no good purpose by the PLA.

There is also the question of timing. Lantau Tomorrow will not, in fact, appear tomorrow. Like most mega-projects run by the government it will take longer than expected. In the meantime Hong Kong people will continue to pay ludicrous prices for tiny flats. “Choosing” to go for 2,000 hectares is choosing a long wait.

Still, help is at hand. The central government has a policy for solving our housing problems and Ms Lam knows what it is. Any chance of the rest of us being told?


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.