20 January 2019
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wants the third runway to be the crowning achievement of his administration. Photos: Bloomberg, CNSA
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wants the third runway to be the crowning achievement of his administration. Photos: Bloomberg, CNSA

CY Leung pushing third runway with eye for second term

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been plumbing the depths of popularity ratings, especially after the pro-democracy Occupy protests late last year.

But that will not dissuade him from running for a second term in 2017 as he believes that his proven loyalty to Beijing will make him a frontrunner in the election, whether it be the small-circle contest of the past or the “universal suffrage” scheme endorsed by the central government.

And whether or not he could get the Legislative Council to approve the central government’s electoral reform package for Hong Kong, Leung is betting on the third runway at Chek Lap Kok as a crowning achievement of his administration that will ensure him another five years in office.

For CY Leung, the HK$141.5 billion project will help deepen the territory’s integration with the motherland — never mind if it involves giving up a certain degree of the autonomy of Hong Kong’s airspace.

It shouldn’t be viewed as a mere coincidence the fact that right after the government announced the third runway plan last Tuesday, Leung told reporters that he was not ruling out seeking a second term, implying that this early, he is already preparing for the campaign.

With the two issues linked together, it is not difficult to see that the political reform issue is no longer his top priority, although he will continue to let his top lieutenants do the hard work of seeking Legco’s approval of the election proposal.

As he has little room to adjust the election reform package to meet the demands of the pan-democratic camp, Leung has shifted his focus to the third runway.

He is convinced that the project is an appropriate infrastructure investment that will bolster the city’s economic growth, and thereby help him gain the support of the so-called silent majority.

Most important of all, Leung obviously believes that the mega project will leave central authorities with no doubt over his leadership capabilities. He could get things done.

On Tuesday, he admitted that the third runway plan has drawn different views from the public, but he insisted that everyone should first support the project, and that technical problems could be solved later.

He warned that the city should waste no time debating over the third runway as it would be too late if the project was built only after all technical problems — including the airspace issue — had been resolved.

That’s the reason why the government did not apply for the public funding for its construction as that route would involve seeking Legco’s approval and risking another round of filibuster from the pan-democrats.

Instead, the government unveiled a self-funded model which will involve bank borrowings, withholding of dividend payouts to the government and an airport construction levy to be imposed on airlines and passengers.

Such an arrangement, of course, will bypass monitoring and filibuster by the lawmakers who will naturally not only scrutinize the wisdom of the self-funded model but also try to find out if the city needs the project in the first place.

In fact, some lawmakers, including Liberal Party’s James Tien, believe that the funding arrangement for the third runway circumvents the Basic Law, given that such an important investment should be monitored by the legislative body.

The government, however, insists that the plan does not violate any law as the Airport Authority, which will fund the project, is not seeking government guarantee for its borrowings.

But if the government is convinced that the project is feasible, appropriate and legal, why not allow Legco to launch an investigation?

The government should try its best to persuade the lawmakers to support the plan, rather than just cut corners to bypass monitoring by the people’s representatives.

What knowledgeable people are concerned about is whether the new runway can add flight capacity for the Hong Kong airport.

They believe that our airport still has room for more flights, but due to the airspace arrangement with China, north-bound flights need to be re-routed to avoid entering China’s airspace.

This, in fact, is the main reason for the air traffic congestion currently being experienced by the Hong Kong airport. This is also the reason why the two existing runways can only handle a limited number of flights.

If the airspace issue remains unresolved, experts believe that the new runway can only be used for landing purposes and will not significantly boost the number of flights the airport can handle.

They very much doubt the government’s claim that a three-runway system can handle 102 flights per hour, up from the current 68, as everything will depend on Shenzhen’s willingness to cede some of its airspace to Hong Kong.

Even before the project takes off, people are already calling it a “white elephant”.

But instead of confronting these issues head on, Leung is simply saying that Beijing will help resolve the airspace issue to ensure the success of the third runway.

At the same time, Leung is implying that any new arrangement will require joint management of airspace by Hong Kong and authorities overseeing the airports in southern China.

This implies that the mainland could get additional airspace from Hong Kong for its own use, and Hong Kong will have to cede the autonomy of part of its airspace to the mainland. As such, the third runway is important to mainland China.

More than an economic project, it is a political decision aimed at deepening Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland. That’s why CY Leung is keen on getting it off the ground.

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EJ Insight writer

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