On the wrong track in villagers' protest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2009, 12:00am

Fifty residents of a village in the northern New Territories have vowed not to move to make way for a maintenance yard, part of the high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong to the rest of China.

The issue is gathering momentum and gaining support from a growing number of non-governmental organisations and pro-democracy politicians, some of whom have pushed the matter to the moral high ground of 'spatial democracy' - that is, the democratic distribution of facilities and services to all urban areas.

Except for the NGO involvement, the protest sounds familiar. Similar demonstrations have taken place many times in the past, and were invariably solved when the stakes were raised to the protesters' satisfaction.

Those who shout: 'I don't want your money' usually mean: 'I want more'. If, with the intervention of the NGOs, this incident were to escalate into a moral issue in the realms of democracy and justice, there would be no room for compromise, no deal and, in the end, no money. This bargaining strategy is very bad for business.

But, if the villagers backed down when sufficient incentives were offered, the NGOs would appear to have been sold out, resulting in a tremendous loss of credibility. To the public they would look gullible, rather than righteous.

Of course, they would justify their retreat with excuses like: 'We have helped the villagers gain better compensation from the government', but that would ring hollow all the same.

I am all for conservation and helping vulnerable groups, provided they have a case. But apart from the 'I don't want to move' argument, I see no justification here.

I agree that, in many instances, people are treated worse than butterflies, for example. At least when the habitat of the latter is endangered, it becomes a conservation area. We cannot reason with butterflies and persuade them to move, but we can do so with our fellow humans. Moreover, the butterflies' offspring will also thrive in their reserve; there is less reason to be optimistic about the descendants of present-day villagers living there for long.

So, if the fact that someone is unwilling to move is a good enough reason to win the moral support of citizens at large, then the development of our entire city will be put on hold.

Dissident politicians entered this dispute to gain exposure. One claimed that the construction of the high-speed rail link would only serve to bring more mainland visitors to Hong Kong. Coming from the mouth of a trade union leader, such a statement is alarming. It seems he must have forgotten that more tourists mean more employment, especially for vulnerable, uneducated and unskilled workers.

The dissidents also forget that many Hong Kong citizens travel north. Will they not benefit? With the completion of the initial phase of the high-speed rail network on the mainland, by 2012, major cities will be much more interconnected.

Hong Kong started late and will only be able to plug into the system by 2014. If we don't hurry, we risk being left out in the cold. We will then become a lonely island in the South China Sea, which would clearly be detrimental to our future development.

Our dissidents have yet to learn from the disappointing turnout for the July 1 march that being anti-government without a real cause is not a very good rallying point for voters.

The protesting villagers in the New Territories will be much more grateful if the pan-democratic politicians can help them get off their high horses and get higher compensation instead. And if they don't get in quickly, pro-establishment lawmakers like Lau Wong-fat will do a much better job.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development