One country – one threat to health and safety

August 11, 2017 18:00
Palm stearin clumps lie on a Lantau Island beach after washing ashore following an oil spill in the Pearl River estuary. China failed to provide Hong Kong a timely alert about the marine ecological disaster. Photo: CNSA

If anyone still has the slightest doubt as to how the "one country, two systems" is operating nowadays don't bother looking at the big examples, such as the proposal to hand the new West Kowloon rail terminus over to the jurisdiction of mainland authorities, but instead examine the palm oil debacle that has caused major pollution of the sea and beaches to the south of Hong Kong.

Proponents of the rail terminus co-location arrangements huffily insist that opponents should not turn this matter into a political issue, as it is primarily a question of practicality. However as the oil spill incident shows, politics dictates how practical matters are handled, included those with major public safety considerations.

Faced with an embarrassing problem following an oil spill, mainland officials, perceiving their superiority over their Hong Kong counterparts, simply took their time to brief them on a contamination problem that required immediate action. It is not the case that either side doubted the need for action but here, in perfect microcosm, we see how the one country two systems principle works because the mindset of mainland officials is that they really don't have to bother with their supplicant counterparts in Hong Kong until they are ready to do so.

Meanwhile let's recap what happened following the oil spill in the Pearl River estuary last Thursday that was only reported to the Hong Kong authorities on Saturday.

Not only was there a three-day delay in conveying news of this hazard but Tse Chin-wan, the new Undersecretary for the Environment, was quick to assure the public that there had been no undue delay in obtaining information from the Guangdong authorities. Mr Tse seems to be painfully aware that criticism of mainland officials is not allowed nowadays even when their inaction relates to health and safety problems.

The palm oil spill is still being cleaned up but far more worrying have been safety issues in relation to the Daya Bay nuclear power generating plant. Concerns over safety were behind the mass protests in Hong Kong when the plant was originally commissioned more than 30 years ago. They were met by assurances that the high level of cooperation between the Guangdong and Hong Kong authorities would ensure maximum cross-border efforts to ensure that the public was kept informed of any problems.

This simply has not happened. Last year, for example, it took a month for authorities to reveal that a leak had occurred at Daya Bay. Previous rumors of leaks have either been dismissed as not significant enough to be reported or have been denied in their entirety. To this day it is hard to ascertain the accuracy of reporting from the plant because of the lack of promised transparency and the failure of the Hong Kong government to be proactive in seeking information and passing it onto the public.

Daya Bay is situated only 30 miles away from the Hong Kong border and there is now a proliferation of new nuclear plants in the region. As matters stand, nine nuclear reactors are operating in Guangdong province, with 18 under construction and plans for another 12. Transparency surrounding their construction and operations is minimal, far worse than at Daya Bay which is 25 percent owned by Hong Kong electricity utility CLP.

What are the chances that problems at any of these facilities would be promptly reported or indeed ever revealed?

The supine officials in the Hong Kong government dare not raise their voices to express the concerns of local people even though mainland officials show no reluctance whatsoever in commenting upon and occasionally reprimanding SAR officials over their performance.

This is a one way street in which one country, two systems has come to mean that what goes on the other side of the border is not the business of Hong Kong even when the safety of local citizens is at stake.

The fine folk who blather on about practicalities and taking politics out of cross border issues need to appreciate that their allegedly 'commonsense' approach quite literally threatens the safety of Hong Kong people.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author