I won't be deterred, vows green crusader
The man in the eye of the storm over the delay to the massive Pearl River Delta bridge project remains unrepentant, unfazed at being singled out as an opponent of development and integration with the mainland.
'I think I am an easy target for the attackers because my political background fits their conspiracy [theory],' engineer and Civic Party vice-chairman Albert Lai Kwong-tak said.
But the veteran environmental campaigner is deeply disappointed by the remarks of chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who said on Thursday that 'a certain party and politicians' were using the courts to further their political interests and ignoring the interests of Hong Kong.
'The judgment was handed down by the court,' Lai said, referring to the Court of First Instance which last month quashed the environmental impact assessment for the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge. The judicial review was brought by a former Civic Party volunteer, who said bridge would damage her health. She was represented in court by a Civic Party member.
'He [Tsang] is challenging our judicial independence,' Lai said. 'The court rules on true-false, while politics is about value judgments. If it was purely political, the court would not have quashed the bridge's EIA.'
Work on the HK$80 billion project was due to start last year.
Since the court ruling, the Beijing-funded Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao newspapers have run dozens of hostile commentaries about Lai, depicting him as a symbol of anti-development and anti-integration forces.
Tsang also implied that Civic Party activities in the name of the environment would marginalise the the city and cause it to miss out on the mainland's economic boom.
Fake Civic Party billboards that appeared in Central and Causeway Bay depicting Lai claiming credit for quashing the bridge's environmental permit were further evidence of efforts to discredit him, Lai claimed.
Lai, who lost in the 2008 Legislative Council election for the engineering sector, admitted he was interested in the upcoming district council election and next year's Legco poll, but stressed this battle was not politically motivated.
'I have been campaigning for better air quality in Hong Kong for 30 years and this battle is for the same cause,' he said.
It's not the first time Lai has been a thorn in the government's side over a big infrastructure project. In 2009 he led a team of independent engineers to challenge the feasibility of HK$66.9 billion Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express railway.
Lai said he did not know he has no ideas how the backlash would affect his party politically but expected it to be positive in the long run because the court's decision would push the government to address the flaws in its issuing of environmental permits.
The court's bridge decision has so far prompted the withdrawal of three environmental assessment reports: the MTR Corp's Sha Tin-Central railway project, the planned waste incinerator on an artificial island off Shek Kwu Chau, and the Sha Lo Tung Development Company's plan for a columbarium and nature reserve at the abandoned New Territories village.
Lai said the government made two major mistakes in preparing for the bridge's construction.
'It didn't work on the economic internal rate of return. It is a standard procedure in all World Bank projects, or projects on the mainland, that we have to take into account the social and environmental costs of the project. Then when it went to the EIA, it didn't conduct a social impact assessment,' he said.
'I'm not against construction. The court case merely exposes the fact that the government is not doing what it is supposed to do,'' Lai said. 'By doing things properly, we will not sacrifice the rights and interests of any individual.'
Lai said taking the matter to court was a last resort which was necessary because of a decline in governance standards. '[The government] has no transparency at all and it is unwilling to listen and make improvements,' he said.
Lai's involvement in the two issues stems from a lifelong interest in environmental justice, which started in secondary school when he met victims of methyl mercury contamination caused by the dumping of industrial waste in the sea in Minamata, Japan.
'The impact was far-reaching,' he said. 'What had happened in Minamata made me realised if we don't handle development properly, the privileged get the money and the rest suffer. Knowledge is a safeguard against injustice.'