Hangover from our handover status quo
For better or for worse? Hong Kong has been reunited with China for 10 years. It is time for the verdict. Our air quality is no better, our harbour is still under threat of reclamation, streets are jammed with cars, landfill sites are reaching capacity, air-conditioners are at full blast, disposable plastic bags are ubiquitous, and our power plants are bargaining for their franchise to pollute by burning coal.
Meanwhile, our leaders and policymakers' vision is fixated on business as usual, and bureaucratic complacency. In a nutshell, we are still suffering from a hangover.
Beijing's assurance of 50 years of the status quo for Hong Kong is perhaps the reason for our hangover from the handover. Hong Kong is still a city of paradox, suffering from a split personality.
It aspires to be a world-class city, but it retreats to a second-class mentality on city planning. The disintegrated harbourfront development, the road-dominated city planning, competing skyscrapers blocking ventilation, the tolerance of illegal land use in the New Territories, and the destruction of neighbourhoods in the name of urban renewal are all testimonies to short-term vision.
Hong Kong enjoys a developed-country status, but it sticks to developing country governance. There is no urgency in overhauling its outdated air-quality objectives (emission standards), there is a reluctance to heed the public's sentiment for culture and heritage, and the administration prefers to spend taxpayers' money on building replicas rather than conserving our legacies.
In the past 10 years, I have had the opportunity to serve on various government advisory committees relating to environmental policy. I was a privileged witness to closed-door policy-making. In the name of public representation and consultation, the advisory committees were often hijacked to become a legitimisation process for foregone government decisions. The special administrative region has done little to shed its colonial past.
In the past 10 years, I have engaged in policy discussions with the last governor, Chris Patten; the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa; and his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. I recall their views on Victoria Harbour's water quality:
In 1997, Mr Patten's parting comment was that he wished he could be remembered for pledging funding for a first-stage clean-up of harbour pollution.
Mr Tung was handed a smelly legacy. There was a growing public outcry, including condemnation by academics on both sides of the border, on the ethical aspects of dumping untreated sewage in someone's backyard. Mr Tung called for a review by an international panel of experts. He had heeded public concern, but it was too late: tunnelling for the project had already begun.
Last August, at a meeting with environmental organisations, Mr Tsang spoke his mind about the Victoria Harbour sewage scheme. He lamented the price tag for tertiary treatment advocated by scholars and environmental groups. He does not understand the importance of integrated water resource management or sustainability planning in response to a looming water shortage crisis on the mainland. He is preoccupied by cost in his policy considerations.
Is there hope for enlightened leadership when our chief executive's priority is short-term growth and bureaucratic expediency? Are there robust checks and balances of power when political parties often hijack the legislative process? Is public interest safeguarded when big-business interest is entrenched in land policies and utility monopolies?
Hong Kong will continue to suffer the hangover of a status quo. The prevalent mentality is to stay in business class and look for a free upgrade to first class. Doubtless to say, those freebies will have to come from no other place than the mainland.
Mei Ng is a board member of Friends of the Earth (HK)