Is the Hong Kong government’s proposal to develop new towns in the Northeastern New Territories New Development Areas going to be the next National Education trauma? In other words, are we going to see the administration of Chief Executive CY Leung insist that ‘x’ must happen, prompting huge numbers of people – especially photogenic ones – to take to the streets demanding that ‘x’ will not happen, followed by an eventual humiliating government retreat?
The answer is probably no. The NENTNDA proposal is not so much for an ‘x’ as for ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and so on. People who like ‘a’ will probably hate ‘b’, while people who like both of them will probably hate ‘c’. Ominously, the plan dates back to Donald Tsang, who announced New Development Areas almost as an afterthought during his vast orgy of infrastructure projects known as the 2007-08 Policy Address. It even has its own website.
The project is predicated on the assumption that Hong Kong has a severe shortage of homes and land. Some commentators say we don’t really need much new housing because so many apartments are in fact sitting empty. They don’t say how you can make them un-empty. As for land: yes, bits of the urban areas are horrendously overdeveloped, but that’s at least partly because other bits are underutilized. The problem is that in the eyes of the government, land must be used for what the lease and zoning regulations say. You can only change the restrictions via bureaucratic nightmares and the payment of such large amounts of money that you don’t bother. Another problem is that a large chunk of ‘residential’ land must be given to the Transport Bureau, who will cover it with gargantuan networks of highways, preferably with huge curling, multi-layered intersections over large expanses of bare concrete.
If we buy the ‘shortage of land’ story, then the NENTNDAs are as good a way to provide new housing as any. The main alternatives are to reclaim from the sea and kill pink dolphins or build over pristine country parks and ‘green lungs’ like South Lantau. (My favoured approach would be to evict Disneyland, the cruise terminal and other locust-bait and build dense but traffic-free new estates to flood the market with homes once and for all so we can forget property and get on with our lives, but what do I know?)
At this point, something has to go wrong, and that something is a One Country Two Systems Research Institute paper from around two years ago suggesting that the closed border area be used for things like mainland tourism. Around a month or so back, Apple Daily, in particular, dug it up and presented it as a plan to cede bits of Hong Kong to Shenzhen. Now NENTNDA is cursed as being part of a bigger strategy of Mainlandization. (To make things interesting, CY was a founder of the 1C2S outfit years ago.) An interesting semi-parallel here is the National Education Services Centre China Model booklet – a pro-Beijing group produces some lame publication and a government policy collapses.
The cast of participants and vested interests in the NENTNDA saga will be rich and complex. Among the more colourful are folk living (often rent free!) in a spacious, green pastoral idyll most of us can only dream of. Should 10,000 of these lucky amateur farmers, whose kids can ride bikes through deserted lanes, deserve space that could house 150,000 of the rest of us? Then you’ve got the ideological greens, people who spy a plot to serve Mainland interests, our own local developers, landowners eyeing fat compensation, the construction industry, the civil-engineer/bureaucrat lobby, tourism interests and probably more sniffing around.
In theory, officials could present a case that would win broad public support (as they say they have) for these mini-new-towns. The case would need to include clear, detailed pledges: all homes will be affordable and aimed at tenants or buyers currently stuck on public housing waiting lists or priced out of the private market; not a single square foot will be sold to non-permanent residents or non-occupiers; affordable retail/commercial space will also be provided for local small businesses to supplement the usual developer-landlords’ chains; there will be no tourist facilities; there will be cheap trendy transport options like electric buses so people can get to the urban areas with no problem; the butterflies and rare plants will be protected.
There you have it – a people-first vote-winner. Simple. But of course that’s not what Chief Secretary Carrie Lam is coming up with. It’s all vague, hand-wringing ‘trust me, I’m an official’. The government might talk tough, but there will be no-one to support it, so the vested interests and single-issue activists will smell fear. It won’t be a good-versus-evil struggle like National Education; it will be a messy, energy-sapping mud-fight.