New towns part of grand plan for Hong Kong-Shenzhen integration

Albert Cheng says the government should look first at developing some of the 2,100 hectares of vacant land to help meet our housing shortage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 7:22am

Some 6,000 people attended last weekend's public forum in Sheung Shui to discuss the development of three new towns in the northeastern New Territories.

As expected, the opposing sides clashed verbally - with groups of villagers, environmentalists and social activists waving banners and chanting slogans - and scuffles broke out.

Scandal-hit Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po was thick-skinned enough to attend the session to answer questions from the public. To be honest, the event was more like a propaganda show than a public consultation. Chan obviously had difficulty dealing with the hecklers, but his message was loud and clear: the government is determined to go ahead with the development plan.

The so-called consultation forum was merely a public relations exercise to dress up the issue before Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying presents it to the Executive Council for approval.

But it's not just Leung who is pushing ahead with this plan; it's Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Understandably, the central government won't rely on Leung to implement any important policies because of his lack of public administrative experience. Lam no doubt is the perfect choice to handle thorny issues like this one because of her combative style. After all, she is the one who went on a duty visit to Beijing, not Leung.

Lam has defended the plan, saying it's a development initiative to address the serious housing shortage currently, as well as our future needs. She said it was extremely urgent to develop new towns to cope with rapidly rising demand and to ensure the city's sustainable development. What rubbish.

If the plan is really aimed at addressing the city's housing demand, why not allocate land closer to the city to build more public and private housing? In Hong Kong, Kowloon and some other parts of the New Territories, we have some 2,100 hectares of vacant land available for residential development, though about half of that is said to be designated for village houses. Some of the rest could be used for public housing.

Residential development cannot be a standalone project. It has to be matched by parallel development that includes facilities and services to support the new town. Tin Shui Wai is a tragic example of what not to do: it is so isolated that it has become difficult for it to prosper as a new town.

The government's plan for the northeastern New Territories seems to echo what it did with Tin Shui Wai. Does it really want to create another "City of Sadness"?

Of course, Lam is trying to package the entire project so that it appears as a grand plan that includes developing six new pillar industries, alongside the development project, to provide job opportunities for future residents. Again, it only further exposes the fact that it is actually a plan to incorporate Hong Kong into the overall development of Shenzhen.

Increasingly in recent years, this has been the plan - pairing up both cities as one in terms of long-term planning. The latest northeast plan is only a small piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

In the 12th five-year plan, the central government has affirmed the importance of improving collaboration between Hong Kong and Shenzhen for their long-term development. It's official that Hong Kong has been incorporated into this joint development with Shenzhen.

The One Country Two Systems Research Institute has been acting as Leung's private think tank over the years, working on the transition and final integration of both cities. Part of the grand plan involves repositioning Hong Kong and its intricate relationship with Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta development.

Leung has long advocated this integration and supported the idea of expanding the Shenzhen border southwards.

In an interview back in 2008, when he was an executive councillor, he not only supported the idea of allowing mainlanders to visit the Hong Kong-Shenzhen special border zone visa-free to promote tourism, but also backed the idea of allowing them to work and study there under certain restrictions. This area would be managed under Hong Kong law.

It is clear that the plan in the northeastern New Territories is just the prologue to a long-term full integration of the two cities.

Lam has managed to gain Beijing's trust because she is willing to go as far as it takes to get things done. Simply put, she is ruthless. She knows how to divide and conquer opponents over controversial issues such as those involving property and land development. She often tries to use financial rewards as bait to divide her opponents and recruit supporters.

We shouldn't be fooled. She is a wolf in sheep's clothing. People should stand united to stop her from selling out Hong Kong and our future with this northeastern New Territories development plan.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.