The Hong Kong Legislative Council Development Panel yesterday discussed the provision of a new military dock on the reclaimed Central harbourfront. This has become one of those development/environmental/conservation controversies that tend to crop up when a city’s population wants a higher quality of life and the government is in the grip of psychopathic town planners who definitely cannot be trusted and quite possibly are in the pockets of construction/engineering/real-estate interests.
The saga goes back to 1994, when the British and Chinese were negotiating handover small-print. The British military headquarters (the Prince of Wales Building) was next to a Navy patrol-craft station and dock. For reasons of face rather than strategy, the People’s Liberation Army wanted the same facilities post-1997 as the Brits had. They could, in theory, have demanded relocation of the military HQ to the new coastline. Instead, to allow for the reclamation, they accepted a new naval station and dock out on Stonecutters Island and asked for a dedicated pier for what was going to end up an inland HQ complex in Central.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the big fuss is about the rezoning of the site from ‘Open Space’ to ‘Military Use’. (In their usual modest way, the bureaucrats have already built the pier itself. It looks a bit like what the old Queen’s Pier would look like if they built it today, with some sort of sloping roof thing to add a dash of Sydney Opera House to the otherwise utilitarian facility.) In theory, the re-zoning could allow for a huge space to be sealed off from the public and/or covered with all sorts of mega-towers. Although not visibly participating in the hoo-hah, the PLA is sending out telepathic vibes to the effect that picnickers, cyclists and dog-walkers will suffer minimum inconvenience when enjoying the gorgeous new green and sunny waterfront, when it’s finished.
District Council member and planning activist Paul Zimmerman sees two possible explanations for the government’s decision to re-zone. One (more or less) is that the pier will be needed if and when Beijing decides to sort Hong Kong out once and for all with a Tiananmen-style massacre of civilians. As he points out, existing transport connections would serve the purpose perfectly well. The other is that Hong Kong government departments want to offload the responsibility for cleaning the pier toilets to someone else – meaning, in this case, the PLA.
I couldn’t resist asking Mr Z if he could think of a third possibility coming in at around 5 on a scale of Zero (urban warfare requirements) to 10 (toilet-cleaning avoidance). He suggests that the PLA might prefer the new zoning status for relatively innocent reasons like control over security, maintenance and costs. One of the functions of the berth will probably be ceremonial; if I were the local PLA chief and followed the local news, I would probably play safe and want to run the site just in case Occupy Central/Post-80s/Scholarism or whoever turn up when some General arrives for an inspection visit.
The problem with the toilet-cleaning avoidance theory is that there must be a Leisure and Cultural Services District Officer (Grade 2) (Hong Kong Island) (Central) (Public Conveniences and Latrines) (Cleansing) somewhere with a big map with lots of coloured pins stuck in it, eagerly licking his lips at the prospect of expanding his headcount, budget and overall empire thanks to additional responsibilities on the new waterfront. These people will kill to get more toilets to clean.
Mr Z adds:
…a ‘goodwill undertaking’ of public access of a Military Installation managed entirely under Garrison Law is undefined territory, whereas declaring a ‘Closed Area’ temporarily for use by the Military of a Public Space which is otherwise entirely managed under Hong Kong Law is a well established mechanism.
In other words, who do you trust more as custodian of (partial) public space on the harbourfront: the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Hong Kong government?
Yup, I think we’ll go with the soldiers, thanks.