Clash over new town plan a perfect storm

June 16, 2014 16:04
Police are deployed to the Legco building after protesters erected banners Friday to demand the withdrawal of a development plan for the New Territories. Photo: AFP

While adding uncertainty to a government new town plan for northeast New Territories, ugly clashes between Hong Kong police and social activists and villagers Friday night have laid bare underlying tensions in the city’s socio-political landscape and in its ties with the mainland.

With the government insisting it will not withdraw the HK$120 billion proposal (US$15.48 billion), chaos around the Legislative Council looks inevitable when the finance committee resumes scrutiny of a government request for pre-work funding of the project on Friday.

A finance committee meeting last Friday was called off after more than 200 angry protesters tried to storm the Legco building when committee chairman Ng Leung-sing decided to fast-track the proposal to a vote, rejecting demands by pan-democrats for more time for debate.

Police used pepper spray to stop the crowds from forcing their way into the building. Twenty-one people were arrested.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, his top aides and Legco President Tsang Yok-sing condemned the violence. On Saturday, Secretary for Development Paul Chan said the government will not withdraw the plan.

At a media briefing on Saturday, anonymous government officials blamed six groups for spearheading Friday's protests. They said the protest might have been a curtain-raiser for Occupy Central's civil disobedience movement.

Coming just days before Occupy Central is due to hold a mock referendum on universal suffrage from Friday to Sunday, the government's attempt to link the two is a calculated move to score points in the public opinion war.

But taking a conspiratorial view of Friday's protest risks missing the whole point of public dissent over the new town plan.

In many respects, opposition to the plan initiated by a loose coalition of villagers and pressure groups is a throwback to a campaign against the high-speed cross-border rail link two years ago.

Among the opponents of the new town plan are villagers who either refuse to quit farming or are unhappy with the government's compensation offer.

They are arguably not the biggest hurdle for the government. That's because there is always room for negotiation between the government and the people directly affected by the terms of the deal such as financial compensation and resettlement.

A host of small civic society groups, some championing nativism, have emerged as the government's toughest opponents in trying to speed up housing and infrastructure development projects. These include the high-speed rail link and the proposed new town.

Those groups have a cynical and skeptical view about the government’s longstanding economic and social development model. They insist the traditional new town development model will siphon benefits to property giants, which snapped up farmland at low prices years ago, at the expense of ordinary people and minority stakeholders such as villagers.

Importantly, both the high-speed rail link and the planned northeast New Territories project near Shenzhen have touched on the sensitive issue of integration with the mainland.

Although government officials have said controls on entry by mainlanders into the new towns will not be relaxed, there are fears the border towns could become the backyard of Shenzhen residents.

Menwhile, underpinning the differences over the development model and integration with the mainland is a deepening discontent among their opponents over the flawed political system which they say is another form of repression that denies them a say in matters affecting their well-being.

The move by the finance committee to cut short debate over the measure for an early vote has been cited by critics as a form of violence by the powers that be in the legislature.

The row over the new town plan is a snapshot of deep-seated contradictions often alluded to by top Chinese officials when commenting on Hong Kong in the past decade.

But the irony is that the conflict in Hong Kong society -- and between the city and the mainland -- shows no signs of easing. Instead, it has picked up in the past two years.

The central government and the Hong Kong administration have put Occupy Central on top of their agenda for Hong Kong. 

And with the government and opponents of the new town project in no mood to back down, a showdown is imminent and its aftermath could have a profound impact on efforts to blockade Hong Kong's political space.

-- Contact the writer at [email protected]


He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.