17 September 2019
The recent 'public engagement' program launched by the government regarding the redevelopment of the east Tsim Sha Tsui harborfront is just tokenism, since only those who are invited can express their views. Photo: HKEJ
The recent 'public engagement' program launched by the government regarding the redevelopment of the east Tsim Sha Tsui harborfront is just tokenism, since only those who are invited can express their views. Photo: HKEJ

Since when has ‘one country, one system’ taken over?

Although the Town Planning Board received more than 50,000 public submissions on the North East New Territories New Development Program, an overwhelming majority of which were against it, the TPB gave the highly controversial project the green light in April.

It didn’t even bother to make the slightest changes to the government’s initial proposal, suggesting that the TPB has degenerated into nothing more than a rubber stamp that’s totally at the government’s service.

Then things got even worse.

Hot on the heels of the TPB’s approval of the program came the Planning Department’s latest proposal for the development of Kam Tin South in the Yuen Long area.

It proposed that the 40 hectares of natural land surrounding Kam Sheung Road Station on the West Rail Line be designated as a high-end residential area where MTR Corp. (00066.HK) will be given the contract to build 8,700 luxury homes.

No one, except the relevant rural committees and the Yuen Long district board, will be consulted about this proposal, which means members of the public, environmental experts and conservationists won’t even have a chance to voice their opinions.

Then recently, the TPB again ignored public opposition and pressed ahead with its decision to award the east Tsim Sha Tsui harborfront redevelopment project to New World Development Co. Ltd. (NWD, 00017.HK) in August.

In fact the proposal had only been discussed briefly as a mere formality in the district council and the Harbourfront Commission before it was tabled to the TPB for final approval.

Despite the fact that some members of the commission were openly skeptical about the decision not to put the project up for open tender, the administration turned a blind eye to their doubts and, as expected, the TPB just gave the proposal its thumbs up as usual, even though it had received more than 300 public submissions against awarding the contract directly to NWD.

The fact that the government skipped the tendering process on such a high-profile public construction project regardless of public objection has raised grave concern among Hongkongers over possible collusion between the government and big businesses or even secret transfers of benefits at the public’s expense.

Some members of the public have even filed complaints with the Office of the Ombudsman on the grounds that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) may have violated the official guidelines issued in 2008 on public-private partnerships.

In the face of enormous public pressure, the LCSD finally backed down and announced last month it would shortly launch a series of activities to engage the public by facilitating public participation in, and enhancing public knowledge of the harborfront redevelopment project.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly apparent that these government initiatives are nothing more than tokenism, as they will be co-organized by NWD, which constitutes a serious conflict of interest and casts doubts on the impartiality of such a public engagement program.

How would anyone expect the company that has been awarded the contract to welcome any opposite views?

To make matters worse, the LCSD had never announced any details of this public engagement program, and there had been no public access to any information about how the administration was going to “facilitate public participation” until the media reported at the end of September that the government had, rather sneakily, set up a focus group to gather the views of the public.

However, membership of this focus group is exclusive to professionals of the movie, tourism and retail industries, as well as members of a few community organizations of the Yau Tsim Mong district.

In other words, this so-called “public” engagement program is actually not open to the “public”, and you cannot make yourself heard unless you are invited.

It goes without saying that anyone who is against the harborfront enhancement program right from the outset or has opposite views about it won’t be invited to take part in the group.

Doesn’t that really say something about our government’s notion of “engaging the public”?

Doesn’t what the government is doing bear a close resemblance to the so-called “democratic centralism” practiced by the Communist Party in the mainland, where public consultation is just a show and will not have any effect on the final decision at all?

Since when has “one country, two systems” turned into “one country, one system”?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 07.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of the Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization