Hong Kong critics slam government move to seek public views on controversial Palace Museum
Sceptics call move a sham, saying it will focus on facility’s design and operation, not whether it should be built in West Kowloon Cultural District
Hong Kong’s No 2 official offered on Thursday to consult the public on the design and operation of a museum to be built in Hong Kong under a controversial deal with Beijing, but critics complained it was still unacceptable that the project itself was already a done deal.
Ahead of an expected grilling by lawmakers in a special meeting today, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wrote to the Legislative Council, telling them it was an official “judgment call” that Hongkongers would welcome their own version of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum.
She promised a six-week public engagement exercise starting next week, as well as focus group discussions with arts and culture experts.
Lam raised eyebrows two weeks ago with her surprise announcement of the museum deal, which will see a 15,000 square metre facility being built on prime harbourfront land in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
Critics complained that it was a legal requirement to consult the public first, and that the government had already picked a designer without inviting any competitive bids.
According to the Legco paper, jointly prepared by Lam’s office and the authority that runs the arts hub, Hong Kong “commenced exploratory discussions” with the Beijing museum in late 2015.
She said it would have been impossible to consult the public before or during the year-long discussions due to“special circumstances of the project and the need to maintain confidentiality”.
“The Palace Museum’s collections are national treasures, the loan of which to other museums ... is subject to stringent state regulations or restrictions,” the paper stated. “We have taken a judgment call that the development of the [museum] should be welcomed [by Hongkongers].”
According to the memorandum of understanding, the plan can be revoked by either party “with any reason”.
The Beijing museum has agreed to the “unprecedented lifting” of restrictions on the number of invaluable artefacts that can be loaned from 120 to over 900 at any one time.
But Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan dismissed Lam’s public engagement vow as “a sham”. “The real question for the public is whether a Palace Museum should be included in West Kowloon.”
Oscar Ho Hing-kay, an expert in cultural studies at Chinese University, said: “Whether the move will provide the government with a way out depends on whether the unanswered questions are addressed, such as why put it in West Kowloon and not any other sites, and why the selection of Rocco Yim Sen-kee as chief architect.”
The document named Yim – an award-winning professional commissioned to lead the architectural team – as the “design consultant”, rather than “architect” as used in a previous statement by the authority, whose board is chaired by Lam.
Indy Lee Chun-leung, a drama adviser to the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, said he was concerned whether participation in the public engagement would imply endorsement of the plan.
On the discussions between the government and the Jockey Club’s charities trust, the sole financier of the HK$3.5 billion project, the paper said the administration had held several undated meetings with the club’s bosses before the sum was pledged last October. “Understandably, such discussions ... had to be kept confidential,” it said.
The museum project is also facing a court challenge. A law student applied for a judicial review on Thursday, seeking to overturn the government plan, and asking the court to order the authority to hold a formal public consultation.