For students at the Hong Kong Baptist University, going to the Kowloon Tong MTR station means a lot of hassle even though the rail facility is just 300 meters away from the campus.
First, the students need to walk up Renfrew Road to Junction Road in the north near the Baptist Hospital. From there, they have to turn south and walk down Waterloo Road and proceed to Suffolk Road to enter the station. The entire journey takes as long as 15-20 minutes.
Now, why do people have to take the sinuous route? Why can’t they walk in a straight path to the station?
Well, it is because of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison’s Osborn Barracks (Kowloon East Barracks) that occupies large chunks of the area between the station and the university. The site is gazetted a military area and is thus closed to the public.
In another case, the Polytechnic University has been grappling with severe limitations in expanding its campus in Hung Hom – it is even proposing to blast hills in nearby Ho Man Tin to make land.
If one looks at the area, there is a large land plot – in fact, bigger than PolyU’s current campus – that lies to the west of the university. Featuring lawns and low-density buildings, it could be suitable for the university’s development needs.
But then it is the PLA Hong Kong Garrison’s Gun Club Hill Barracks, and hence out of the question!
Land shortage is blamed for Hong Kong’s predicament in public housing, office supply, development of tertiary education and new industries.
While the government pays lip services to expediting land supply – authorities have even hinted at rezoning some of the country parks – one can’t help notice that the Chinese army in the territory happens to sit on a huge land bank that covers more than 27.51 square kilometers, equaling two Lamma Islands.
Many of the sites owned by the army lie right next to urban districts and have barely been utilized since the handover.
The garrison currently operates a dozen military sites across the territory. Five are on the Hong Kong Island: Central Barracks with the upside-down Gin bottle-shaped headquarters building (the former Prince of Wales Building) on the Central waterfront; Stanley Barracks; Headquarter House on Barker Road in the Peak (official residence of the garrison commander); Justice Drive Barracks (Queen’s Lines) in Admiralty; and Bonham Towers military quarters in Mid-Levels.
In Kowloon, the force has four sites, including the Gun Club Hill Barracks, the Osborn Barracks and a naval base on the Stonecutters Island.
The rest of the PLA’s sites are in New Territories, including Shek Kong Camp with a nearby airfield in Yuen Long, Cassino Lines and Tam Mi Camp near Lok Ma Chau, Gallipoli Lines and a nearby firing range in Fanling and a Military Joint Movements Unit at Hong Kong International Airport.
The two sites in the heart of Kowloon, Osborn and Gun Club Hill, are perhaps the most suitable ones to be rezoned for more efficient use.
The Osborn site covers 100,000 square meters but media reports have noted that for years there hasn’t been any significant military presence there. The barracks just consists of dormitories, sports facilities and warehouses.
It is said that during the colonial era, especially the turbulent times before the 1970s when a threat from China could not be rolled out, an infantry brigade of the British army was stationed there to guard a number of media organizations that clustered along the Broadcast Drive back then, including RTHK, Commercial Radio, TVB and Rediffusion Television (now ATV). Yet with the changes over the following decades, Osborn’s military significance is almost gone.
The status quo of the 10-hectare Gun Club Hill Barracks is largely the same as encampments there vacated by the British troops before 1997 have been laid unused since then. The only major function of the site is a military hospital but the facility only occupies a small northwestern portion of the site.
For years PolyU students have been petitioning that the remaining site should be used for new campus development. Yet in a reply to a Legislative Council inquiry, Security Minister Lai Tung-kwok said that the government has no plan to change the use of these military sites as “none is left idle”.
Among the sites occupied by the garrison, some are strategically located and have been actively fortified for decades, such as a camp on the tip of the Stanley Peninsula.
But one wonders exactly what kind of defense purpose do Osborn and Gun Club Hill serve today in the middle of bustling downtown areas? Isn’t it a tremendous waste of land at a time when many public institutions such as universities are suffering from space constraints?
Similar questions have also been raised regarding the Justice Drive Barracks, a strip between Three Pacific Place and Conrad Hong Kong Hotel in the shadow of the skyscrapers in Admiralty district.
Even in the mainland, rarely are so many prime sites within a city’s core urban area being occupied by the military.
If one takes a broad look, there are many precedents where local governments have negotiated to rezone or reallocate some of the military camps and facilities to accommodate larger civic housing and redevelopment needs.
With regard to the Hong Kong facilities, it is no surprise that calls are now growing in the city that the PLA should give up some of its land and help the territory cope with its real needs.
Among the proposals is that the military should optimize the flight paths in the Shek Kong airfield so that building height restrictions nearby can be relaxed to enable more effective use of land.
It has also been reported that part of the 2,263-hectare Castle Peak Firing Range in western New Territories can be rezoned to make room for the West New Territories Landfill which has been nearing its full capacity.
Under Article 13 of the Garrison Law, if the Hong Kong government requires for public use any part of the military sites under the garrison, it shall seek the approval of the Chinese government. Twenty-five military sites, totaling 139 hectares, were handed back by the British army before it pulled out in 1997.
Now, we come to this question: Will local officials have the guts to ask Beijing to release some of the “locked up” sites to quench the city’s acute land thirst?
Not many are optimistic about such prospects, but shouldn’t we then bring this issue straight to the PLA — how about making some unilateral concessions?
At a time when dissatisfaction with Beijing is at an all-time high, the Hong Kong public would surely appreciate a show of goodwill and reconciliation if the Chinese military can return some of its no-longer-useful land back to the territory.
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Seen and heard: PLA HK Garrison flexes its muscles