At a news conference held last week to discuss the controversial Wang Chau public housing project, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying admitted that he personally made the decision to scale down the project substantially — from 17,000 flats to just 4,000 — in the first phase of development.
He also said the project’s subsequent phases will not commence until the government completes an upcoming review of the usage of all the brownfield sites totaling 1,200 hectares in Hong Kong.
In other words, the remaining 13,000 Public Rental Housing (PRH) flats promised by the administration in Wang Chau are unlikely to be delivered over the next 10 or, in the worst-case scenario, even 20 years.
According to the administration, it decided to drastically slash the Wang Chau project on the advice of some middle-level civil servants of the Housing Department, who had faced fierce opposition to the project during “soft-lobbying” with local clan leaders.
That government said that after serious consideration, it decided to “go for the easy one first” by building 4000 flats on the greenbelt area in Wang Chau and leave the brownfields untouched for the time being.
I bet the inhabitants of the three non-indigenous villages within that greenbelt area must be feeling intensely indignant right now at the chief executive’s suggestion that evicting them to build new flats is considered by the government as an “easy” option, while tapping into the uninhabited brownfield sites — on which there are nothing but parking lots and temporary container yards — is regarded by our officials as “difficult”.
Does it suggest that in the eyes of our decision-makers, assets owned by powerful clan leaders are deemed more valuable than those of ordinary people?
Even though I agree with Chief Executive Leung that it is getting increasingly difficult for the government to find appropriate land to build PRH flats, I do feel compelled to cast doubts on some of the arguments he made at the press conference.
First, I agree that the government would be justified in relocating inhabitants on greenbelt areas in order to build new PRH flats when there isn’t any other better option available.
On the other hand, according to the administration, the government had no choice but to scale down the project because the middle-level officials of the Housing Department it sent to soft-lobby local clan leaders had met with fierce opposition to the initial goal of building 17,000 flats.
As far as I am concerned, I have absolutely no problem with “soft-lobbying” as our government, both before and after the city’s 1997 handover to China, has long been adopting such a practice when it comes to negotiating with local landowners over compensation for their land.
It is because such unofficial meetings can help the government assess the overall situation and gauge public views on large-scale development programs like the Wang Chau project before launching official public consultation.
I believe I am qualified to say so because when I was serving as the Secretary for Civil Service, I personally did a lot of soft-lobbying with public servant unions over paycuts.
However, here comes the question: if our chief executive attached such great importance to the Wang Chau project, so much so he had to personally chair the special task force on it, then why did he only send some middle-level civil servants, instead of more high-ranking officials, to negotiate with local clan leaders, whom we all know are no pushovers?
Besides, neither have the current government nor the previous ones ever declared brownfield sites off-limits to public housing projects. So on what grounds did the government make the brownfields in Wang Chau a unique exception this time? The administration definitely owes the public an answer to this.
Last but not least, I don’t think the chief executive has told us the whole truth behind his decision to scale back the Wang Chau project.
Unless the government unveils all the details about the project, it can never clear itself of suspicion of colluding with local clan leaders at the expense of public interests.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 29.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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