Official vandalism alert!

November 14, 2015 08:01
The country parks are the jewel in Hong Kong's crown, but who can trust the Leung Chun-ying administration to ensure they are not laid waste to by profit-hungry property developers? Photo: HKEJ

A gross act of official vandalism is in the works -- but, rather unusually, no less a person than Hong Kong’s chief executive has proffered an early warning of what’s to come.

In some ways Leung Chun-ying was doing little more than confirming fears that were raised two years ago when his hapless planning minister first started talking about the need to destroy -- sorry, "develop" -- the country parks.

Now CY Leung is back on the subject and has come up with some new weasel words to describe this form of vandalism, which he now describes as being a need to identify country park land with "low ecological value" for housing use.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Hong Kong’s country parks are a remarkable and priceless innovation that came into being thanks to the foresight and good sense of the past colonial government.

They stretch from close proximity to very crowded areas on Hong Kong Island to the most remote, and incidentally breathtakingly beautiful, parts of the New Territories.

The parks were created to provide a breathing space in this crowded city and to conserve the remarkably diverse ecology of the tiny enclave that is Hong Kong.

It is hard to think of anywhere else in the world that enjoys this mix of a major conurbation abutting extensive park land.

The parks therefore fully deserve the accolade of being the jewel in Hong Kong’s crown.

Moreover, usage of the parks has proliferated, and they are now attracting a new kind of visitor from the mainland.

I know this from personal experience, as I happen to live in one of the parks and spend a great deal of time out on the park trails.

Selfishly, I would prefer to go back to the days when I had these trails more or less to myself, but in other ways it is glorious to see them getting increasingly busy.

None of this is to say that a rational discussion cannot be had over the parks' future and where they might fit into Hong Kong’s need for land that can be used for housing.

The key word here is rational, because the reality is that the parks are already under siege from developers, and the government is doing its best to hear and see nothing.

Property companies big and small have been buying up land in abandoned villages and other areas that are designated as enclaves within the parks.

The country park laws do not cover these enclaves, but, like all other land in Hong Kong, they are subject to planning controls.

The developer’s favored tactic is to tear down the vegetation in these places and then quickly erect buildings or make a beeline to the authorities for permission to build on the newly empty land.

The supine authorities often grant this permission and go so far as to give retrospective permission for buildings erected without any authorization.

Three Chinese characters rendered in transliteration as Heung Yee Kuk explain why this is so.

The power of the kuk is notorious, and its influence in Beijing well established.

Government officials cower in dealings with its representatives.

It is therefore hardly fanciful to assume that any discussion of the country parks' future will occur without the kuk playing a pivotal role. 

There is no need to guess what this means, as the kuk has not expressed the slightest interest in preserving the countryside but has a consistent record of  focusing on property development, not least development that benefits so-called indigenous villagers who were rashly given land handouts by the same colonial government that had the foresight to create the parks.

Given this reality, what hope is there for a rational dialogue on the parks' future when participation in this dialogue will be so heavily skewed to accommodate those with a clear material interest in cutting back the parks to make way for lucrative property developments?

If, for one second, I believed that the government was capable or inclined to have an open-minded debate about the parks' future and the balance that needs to be struck between conservation and housing needs, I would be all for embarking on this debate.

However, who in their right mind is going to trust the Leung administration with handling this Hong Kong jewel when evidence already exists to show that once the future of the country parks is discussed, the outcome will favor the property developers and not the people of Hong Kong, nor indeed will it be sympathetic to the glorious natural heritage that is threatened with destruction.

The day will come when this matter needs to be settled, but, as matters stand, it needs to be delayed as long as possible, because no sensible person can trust the CY Leung administration to deal with the country parks in a way that truly serves Hong Kong's people.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author