Harbourfront activist faces his biggest battle yet

Winston Chu has campaigned for 19 years to keep Hong Kong's harbourfront a public space. Now the 73-year-old is gearing up for his biggest battle with the authorities yet, he tells Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 9:35am

Winston Chu Ka-sun enters the boardroom of his law office in Admiralty with an assistant in tow; both carry large piles of paper that they deposit on the table with a small thud. "I have more than 800 files on Victoria Harbour," Chu says. "I even bought a flat in Wan Chai to store my papers."

Chu has been Hong Kong's most ardent defender of the harbour for the past 19 years. But at the age of 73 he just wants to fade into the background. "Do you know what my greatest ambition in life is?" asks the founder of the Society for Protection of the Harbour. "[To be] a beach bum."

I am not anti-China, not in the political sense. I want China to be a good nation
Winston Chu

Following a legal challenge that won a government agreement that there would be no further reclamation along the waterfront, Chu planned to retire at the end of 2006 and devote himself to writing a book about his epic fight to save Victoria Harbour.

But the flip flops and swimming trunks will have to wait, because Chu is gearing up for what may well be his biggest battle yet against the administration.

That's because, in February, the government quietly announced its plan to rezone and hand over a stretch of waterfront near Pier 10 in Central to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), to be used as a military berth.

The news was a blow to Chu and Hongkongers looking forward to enjoying a revitalised harbour area.

This latest plan runs contrary to the vision statement that the Town Planning Board issued in 1999 for the harbour: "To make Victoria Harbour attractive, vibrant, accessible and symbolic of Hong Kong - a harbour for the people and a harbour of life."

Fast forward 13 years. The waterfront area from Central to North Point has been transformed for public use; but now the government has fenced off the area for the PLA.

It's this breaking of an agreement that has rallied people such as Chu, who is now the society's adviser, to fight the military berth plan.

"I am neither a troublemaker, nor aspiring hero, but this has arisen out of necessity," Chu says of his new fight. "I have to take it up because I know the background [of the harbour and have the legal knowledge]."

He holds up a document concerning an exchange of notes to do with the handover between Britain and China, written on November 11, 1994 and registered with the United Nations on October 25, 1995. Among other matters, it details the exchange of various facilities:

a) 14 British military sites that were to be handed over for use by the Chinese military, including the former Stanley Barracks, Shek Kong Camp and Castle Peak Firing Range.

b) 25 sites to be taken over by the Hong Kong government, such as So Kon Po Sports Ground, Perowne Barracks in Tuen Mun and High Island Training Camp in Sai Kung.

In addition, five facilities and venues were given over. They included a naval base on the south of Stonecutters Island; a military hospital at Gun Club Hill barracks; a military storage facility at Shek Kong camp; and the Military Joint Movements Unit at Chek Lap Kok airport.

Each of the four items clearly specifies the area in square metres and standards to be maintained. However, the fifth venue details are oddly vague:

" Waterfront to be left free at the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation, Hong Kong Island, for the construction of a military dock. The Hong Kong Government will leave free 150 metres of the eventual permanent waterfront in the plans for the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation at a place closer to the Prince of Wales Barracks for the construction of a military dock after 1997."

Although it specifies the length of the site, there is no indication of how far inland it should extend. Nor has the dock been listed as a military site.

Responding to queries from Chu and the society, Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po, wrote on his blog on the Development Bureau website on May 9 that "the garrison has also undertaken to open the area of the military dock site to the public as part of the waterfront promenade for enjoyment when it is not in military use."

Chu and fellow campaigners accept the PLA has the right to berth a military vessel and to build a dock. What they object to is handing over the rights to the site. They are calling for a legally-binding agreement to share to space, not a promise based on Chan's words.

"This is about public space - everyone can use the area, including the military. But if the Hong Kong government hands the area to the military, then the government has no rights over it," he says.

Harbourfront Commission members, for instance, have expressed concern over the design and facilities of the military site. Under the plan, Chu says the PLA could theoretically put up a three-storey building with a maximum height of 10 metres, which would block significant portions of the harbour view.

Until he set up the Society for Protection of the Harbour in 1994, there was little to suggest that Chu would turn into a persistent campaigner. The son of a wealthy cotton trader, and sixth of 12 children, he went to boarding school in England when he was 14, and studied law at University College, London.

He set up his own law firm after his return in 1960, and served on the Town Planning Board for eight years until extensive reclamation works and pollution drove him to set up the society.

Chu, who has taught urban planning at University College, London, for 17 years, envisioned waterfront use in Hong Kong to resemble St Mark's Square in Venice - people-friendly, with lively shops and al fresco dining.

But the transformation unfolding at Central is far from the idyllic vision that he had in mind. "Originally the plan was for the waterfront to have both public and military use. But what the government is doing now is unlawful."

The rezoning plan will now go up for review by the Town Planning Board, but Chu puts little faith in the process, arguing that the panel is stacked with government appointees. If the decision goes against them, Chu and the society plan to file a judicial review to thwart a handover of waterfront land to the PLA.

That exercise could prove expensive, but Chu is fortunate to be able to tap into a private fund; when his mother Cissy Chu Fok Wing-yue died six years ago, she left a small inheritance to support any legal battle he might undertake.

It was his mother who first castigated him about increasing damage caused to the harbour when he was on the Town Planning Board. The pair came to spearhead the campaign save it from further reclamation.

The crusade brought them into conflict with powerful interests. It was alarming to find intimidating letters sent to his law office in 2003. "These writers stated they knew the number plate of my mother's car, where she went for her social activities as well as where she lived," he recalls.

While he was offered police protection, Chu decided it would be wiser to quit Hong Kong temporarily; he sent his mother to stay with relatives in Singapore while he and his wife spent a few months in London.

This time, Chu is prepared to stand his ground - even if threatening letters appear again, and despite the objections of his wife and two grown-up children.

"My whole family is against me [campaigning] - my wife nicknames me Don Quixote, for tilting my lance at the windmill."

Still, several actions by mainland authorities could render any legal action moot, he says. "Firstly, the State Council can write a letter saying it wants the land, and secondly, the PLA writes a letter stating they need the land for defence purposes. With these outcomes, we can't do anything."

Chu hopes some kind of compromise can be reached - that is, for the public and the PLA to share the use of the waterfront. And when a military vessel is berthed at the pier, the area can be cordoned off for security reasons.

He hopes the debate over the coming months, along with the annual July 1 protest march, will help build a groundswell of support for his campaign,

"More people are more aware of their rights now, and even taking the government to court. In 2010 there were 190 judicial reviews. There are hundreds of organisations formed with their own issues. I cannot form a big army so I am using guerilla tactics," he says with a smile.

To prepare for the battle ahead, he has been reading Sun Tzu's Art of War. If he ends up taking the government to court, Chu hopes the case will show the central government that Hong Kong adheres to the rule of law.

"We want to be lawful, reasonable and dignified," he says. "I am not anti-China, not in the political sense. I want China to be a good nation, not just in terms of economics, but to be a 'person' of quality. I hope it will achieve good things for Hong Kong and China."

Victoria Harbour is the city's face to the world, he says: "the promenade would give the world a nice impression of Hong Kong, not guns, tanks and warships."