The government has specified for the first time the circumstances in which the People's Liberation Army will occupy a military pier at the new Central waterfront, but it declined to estimate how often the space would be open to the public.
Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po and his officials came under pressure yesterday from pan-democrat and pro-government lawmakers to commit to the frequency with which visitors could access the 0.3-hectare pier, which is nearing completion along 150 metres of the waterfront.
The PLA's Hong Kong garrison would use the area only in when conducting military training, berthing military vessels, running ceremonial activities and carrying out pier maintenance, deputy secretary for development Thomas Chan Chung-ching said.
"Except when there are emergencies or special circumstances, the pier will be open to the public," he said.
Paul Chan told lawmakers that the army had pledged not to add extra structures to the pier.
The site now has four one-storey structures, which house public utilities, and electronic gates that will be activated to fence off the pier when the military is using it.
In February, the government proposed rezoning the area from open space to a military site, prompting harbour activists to fear reduced accessibility of the waterfront. The Town Planning Board received close to 10,000 public submissions on the issue before the deadline yesterday.
The army's pledge to open up the area when it was not in use, and to provide a road behind the pier connecting the east and west parts of the promenade, has not allayed the concerns.
Yesterday, Paul Chan sparked heated debate in the legislature with his stern words that the opponents had ignored the need for military defence and the fact that the city had returned to Chinese sovereignty. "It was a solemn pledge of the army. I hope the public will no longer bear misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility towards the [rezoning]."
Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, of the Civic Party, said rezoning meant any decision to open the site would rest solely with the army. "It's not about trust … It's about urban planning."
He moved a motion opposing the rezoning, but failed to gain majority support.
James Tien Pei-chun, of the Liberal Party, said: "From the point of view of 'one country two systems', there's a need in principal [to rezone]. But can you estimate how many days it will be open to the public? People may be more receptive if you have an estimate."
Thomas Chan said the government could not give an estimate on behalf of the army.
The New People's Party's Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a former security chief, said she was responsible for the talks with the army. "Hongkongers lack military knowledge and a sense of crisis … It would be ridiculous if the army had to ask the Rubber Duck to leave when it needed the pier."