New Territories towns plan a battle for hearts and minds
Proposal to develop three towns near the border have not gone down well with a wary public who suspect ulterior motives are at work
A controversial plan to develop three new towns in the northeastern New Territories highlights distrust between the people and the new government, as well as public resistance against greater integration with the mainland.
Opposition to the project is peaking as the public consultation ends today.
The controversy erupted only after the new administration took over in July, although consultations began four years ago. Such a sudden change in public sentiment is not new. The government, led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has already handled one on national education over the past few months.
Both schemes were a leftover of the last administration. Such was the anger at plans to make national education compulsory in public schools by 2016 that the idea was scrapped.
In order to ensure the residential and industrial developments in the new towns were compatible with the environment, planning officials at the initial stage of consultation cut the housing density by 36 per cent. But two years later, officials came under pressure to raise the density again to meet housing demand.
But various opposition voices and public discontent erupted towards the end of the last of the three-stage consultation. Activists question the government's thinking behind the plan to promote social and economic integration with Shenzhen, claiming it is not for Hongkongers but for mainland visitors and investors.
Earlier this week, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor dismissed these "false claims", but such feelings are not surprising if one looks at the context and recent social sentiment.
Years before he became chief executive, Leung - as convenor of the Executive Council and chairman of the board of directors of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute - had already proposed turning part of the border area into a special economic district with visa-free arrangements for mainlanders who wanted to shop, invest, study and receive medical services.
With intensifying conflicts such as mainland parents giving birth in Hong Kong and the influx of individual mainland visitors, Leung's concept has annoyed those who value the city's independence. They fear a similar philosophy is at work in the new town developments.
Professor Chan Kin-man, director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies at Chinese University, said the government must explain to the public who would eventually benefit.
"The controversy apparently stems from the distrust of the public. They question Leung's commitment to Hong Kong, although he is supposedly an expert in housing development and he advocated flat sales restricted to Hongkongers," he said.
Ng Mee-kam, professor of urban planning at the university, said the city needed a bottom-up consultation approach starting with community planning.
"You just can't consult people living in the 21st century with a 20th-century approach."
While big land owners such as Henderson Land, Sun Hung Kei Properties and New World Development want to share profits by co-developing the land with the government instead of seeing the sites acquired by the government at a cheap rate, villagers want more compensation and resettlement in the area.
Last but not least, activists complaining about the loss of agricultural land and lifestyle want a new consultation. The immediate challenge to the administration is to seek a balanced way forward that will satisfy all the vested interests in the project.