Threats not the way to stop Mei Foo protests
A golden rule of property development is that time is money. Each day that passes as a result of unanticipated delay costs interest, puts strains on cash flow and clouds when income will start to be generated. The compensation claim and injunction sought by Billion Star Development to stop work-blocking protests at its site at Mei Foo Sun Cheun takes the adage to heart. It may seem a reasonable response to some in the property sector, but it certainly suggests the developer has little regard for the views of nearby residents.
We understand the hard, commercial motives of developers when they commit themselves to a project. Billion Star's priority is getting a 20-storey residential complex onto the 1,350-square-metre site as quickly as possible. Only when it is completed and open for business will its investment start paying dividends. Any hiccups to those plans are an impediment to its business model.
It is not, after all, an industry for the faint-hearted. The huge financing involved for such a development generally means that if plans do not work out, it is not a matter of going financially back to square one, but square one minus 10. The prospect of such a risk was not apparent when work began. The government had given all the approvals, so the prospect of a disruption was not on the horizon.
That is not how the hundreds of residents of phase eight of the private estate, just eight metres from where the building will go up, see it. Nor do the thousands of others who live near two other sites on the estate who could face the same prospect. They had believed the sites were government land and that a promise had been made that it would not be sold or developed. To one day wake up and find construction under way was in such circumstances alarming. Apart from the inconvenience of noise and dust pollution and the closure of a private road for which upkeep was being paid, blocked views and air flow would mean a sharp drop in flat values.
These are the realities of living in Hong Kong, where development next door is a worry and headache for all but those in the most exclusive areas. But the protests stalling construction that began at Mei Foo Sun Cheun last month are not just the usual response to having a peaceful life disturbed. Instead, they cut to the heart of a host of issues, from the power of property tycoons, to perceived collusion between developers and the government, to the gap between rich and poor to the most basic of all, free speech. Nor are the demonstrators the downtrodden of society. They are firmly middle class, conservative people who do not have a penchant for rocking the boat.
A protest four Sundays ago by 1,000 residents and supporters took the dispute to a new level. Hundreds, many of them elderly, lay on the ground face-up and then marched around the site. Day-and-night patrols are halting workers and equipment. There is a chance of a judicial review against the project based on a previous court ruling in a case that would appear to be similar.
The rule of law can always be turned to. Our judicial system can fairly resolve disputes and prevent interference by the government, or the rich or powerful in our affairs. It is an essential check and balance amid so much property development.
All people in our city have the right to protest - a right upheld by the Basic Law. Protests must be carried out lawfully, of course. The developer's injunction would seem to be a disproportionate restriction on that freedom. It should first and foremost be engaging the estate's residents, not threatening or intimidating them.