Government sets off another time bomb

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2012, 1:28am

It's déjà vu, and so soon. A government plan to build border towns in the northeast New Territories is threatening to be a repeat of the national education debacle. If the government is not careful, it will have another policy disaster on its hands.

As with the curriculum row, the plan involves a heavy mainland element, in this case, potential border integration with Shenzhen. Given our current public mood against all things mainland, this could be explosive. The plan covers Fanling North, Kwu Tung North and Ta Kwu Ling, and aims to provide 53,800 homes for 152,000 people.

In a repeat of their bungled handling of the education row, officials have cavalierly dismissed concerns about turning these areas into the "backyard" of Shenzhen, with visa-free entry and property investment opportunities for wealthy mainlanders. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said accusations of selling out Hong Kong interests to Shenzhen were "totally unfounded".

"I'm surprised at the false claims," she reportedly said. "I believe Hong Kong people who have lived with new town developments over the past 50 years will understand why we need to develop more of them to satisfy the needs of the population."

There we go again. Didn't top officials say something similar when they dismissed the concerns of protesters against national education as unjustified? Most of those "new towns" - now old towns - were built to alleviate housing needs before the handover. But now we have a completely different political and social situation. Perhaps Lam's reputation for intelligence and competence is undeserved.

Her boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has long advocated border integration. It makes economic sense, but it is increasingly being rejected by substantial segments of our society, either in defence of a separate Hong Kong identity or against the influx of mainlanders. In fact, border integration has always been part of the proposed new town plan; encouraging property purchases and visa-free access by mainlanders have not.

Leung and Lam must now tread carefully. Go slow, consult again and if necessary, delay and redraw the blueprints before another time bomb blows up in your face.