A phoney war over PLA dock

Mike Rowse says common sense is missing in quarrel over PLA dock

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:32am

There is a totally unnecessary confrontation going on between the government and various interest groups over the zoning of a small parcel of land on the Central harbourfront. There may still be time to fix the problem with the application of some common sense, but unfortunately this is a commodity not much in evidence so far.

The issue arises because of a clause in the agreement between Britain and China in 1994 over what would happen to land in Hong Kong then occupied by the British garrison. The agreement itself, taken overall, was a testament to the two governments' pragmatism.

In brief, it provided that 14 sites would be taken over by the PLA garrison in 1997 while some 25 would cease to be occupied for military purposes.

The agreement also said: "The Hong Kong Government will leave free 150 metres of the eventual permanent waterfront in the plans for the Central and Wanchai Reclamation at a place close to the Prince of Wales Barracks for the construction of a military dock after 1997."

It was always understood that People's Liberation Army warships, from time to time, such as during emergencies or on ceremonial occasions, would wish to berth there, but for most of the time the open space between the sea and any onshore facilities would form part of the waterfront promenade.

It is a point of disbelief among our rival tourism destinations around the region that Hong Kong has made so little of its natural harbour. Various administrations have been promising that this oversight would be remedied and residents and visitors alike would one day enjoy a promenade right along the harbourfront from Sheung Wan to Causeway Bay.

In due course, the reclamation was undertaken, the due length of sea wall was constructed vertically so as to permit easy berthing of warships, and some way inland a few minor shore facilities were constructed.

So "one day" arrived at last, but then it all went wrong.

What should have happened is that the small area around the onshore support facilities should have been zoned military land on the outline zoning plan and reserved for garrison use. And all the space between there and the sea should - like the rest of the promenade - have been zoned open space for public enjoyment. A small footnote to the plan could have recorded that the relevant area would from time to time be used by the military.

But, instead, someone, somewhere decided that the entire area from the facilities up to the sea wall would be zoned for military use. The effect of this slip of the planning pencil is that public entry, far from being the natural state of affairs, is now at the discretion of the commander of the PLA garrison.

I, for one, have no doubt that the commander is likely to be a reasonable chap. On the few occasions in a year when he needs the space, he will roll out the folding gates, direct the public round the back, and the world will go on.

But, understandably, those who have been waiting for decades for the waterfront promenade resent the reversal of priorities. Many thousands of objections have been lodged against the draft zoning plan.

The Town Planning Board, apparently determined to reinforce its public image as a rubber-stamp extraordinaire, is playing fast and loose with its proceedings, while the government pretends that this zoning arrangement is a requirement of the 1994 agreement, which it clearly isn't.

So there we have it: a classic phoney war left over from previous administrations. And the only casualty will be government credibility. No great loss there then.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk