‘Activists trust government with harbourfront’ shock

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.

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10 Responses to ‘Activists trust government with harbourfront’ shock

  1. In China and North Korea, all open public spaces are for military use.

    Please, no more monuments etc dismantled and rebuilt in Stanley. We are running out of space.

    In other news, I see Miss Marple has been appointed to head the HKMEx probe. A good choice. She likes fudge, takes her time and may well drop dead before the investigation is finished. Even better, her findings will be entirely fictional!

  2. Sojourner says:

    “I think we’ll go with the soldiers, thanks.”

    Yup, me too. At least the soldiers will shoot you in the face. The HK government will stab you in your back.

  3. maugrim says:

    I’d lock in possibility three. One thing concerns me though, given the lack of public free space in HK, isn’t it a bit mean and selfish to designate an area to the military when all they need, given the infrequency of ceremonies etc is something a little more modest?

  4. Complex pile says:

    The town planners are psychopathic, but I don’t think they are in the pockets of construction/engineering/real-estate interests. Like all civil servants, they behave no different than Leisure and Cultural Services District Officer (Grade 2) (Hong Kong Island) (Central) (Public Conveniences and Latrines) (Cleansing): the bigger their empire, the greater their morale, and the greater prospect for patting themselves on the head.

  5. colonelkurtz says:

    I can understand the need for temporary controlled access to the docking area when a naval ship is docked and/or when APCs are being unloaded to subdue the uppity local population. (I don’t think they’ll care much for the niceties of HK planning law if the latter scenario ever comes though, so that’s irrelevant.) But, reports say that the zoning gives them permission to build 10 storey buildings. Presuming that’s right, do we or they need a PLA run IFC mall or Four Seasons equivalent? If they need a “fleet arcade” for sailors, they could resume the existing one and, if R&R’s the thing, swap the expat girlie bars of Wanchai for more or less discreet PLA “comfort stations”. Neither would bother me as much as the planning permission overkill they’re getting.

    Complex – I can see your thing from my office window and it’s amazingly real looking seen at about 2kms from 30 floors up.

  6. Haddock says:

    Having spent time in the HK Government, I can tell you that the first instinct of a civil servant when confronted by something new is indeed to ask ‘Is it my responsibility?’ and if not to get rid of it sharpish and if possible get rid of it even if it is. The rule is don’t commit to anything new ever until you have the support of your department heads, overarching Bureau chiefs, a budget and staff with position charter in place etc.
    Now for the idealism. After decades of mismanagement and misuse of the harbour the new central harbourfront is a chance to start with a clean(ish) slate and get it right. The harbourfront should be dedicated and zoned for public use and the PLA can obtain access to the harbour when they ask for it, not the other way round. Salvation may yet be at hand as a ‘white knight’ in the shape of a new Harbourfront Authority led by right thinking people is on the cards to make everything better. Hurrah!

  7. Local Tax Payer says:

    Remember how the successive new governors arrived, feathers flying? The mentality here is when you see something pretty, or well-designed, or even popular, to say: I want one.

  8. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    That last pier out the front of IFC is where junks pick up passengers, no? The (omninously “minimum”) 150m exclusion almost cuts off access to that side of the pier. Perhaps this is a scheme to curtail the debauched Hong Kong junk trip trade?

  9. Gkutt57 says:

    Public space is public space. The miliary have stone cutters and the tamar base. Stone Cutter’s is underutilized. If they had to land boats, they can do at the public piers in any case and corden the area off for a limited time. NO NEED FOR A BESPOKE PIER!!!! Queens Pier was run like that too.
    I am absolutely against allowing the PLA exclusive use of this space. They should be regarded as part of the public not separate from it.

  10. Oneleggoalie says:

    Yes to the PLA PIER if 100 of them are made to stand 8 hour shifts, 6 days a week, with 2 weeks off a year, under all weather, for the tourists to take pictures.
    Oneleg likes this idea very much.

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