West Kowloon Cultural District

Hong Kong’s Palace Museum plan throws out the rulebook to put politics above the people

Dennis Kwok says the surprise announcement of a local version of Beijing’s heritage museum displays a blatant disregard for established procedure and public opinion that goes against Hong Kong’s core values

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 11:54am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 8:12pm

With no public consultation, no competitive bids and zero transparency, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declared that a 10,000 square metre museum would be built at the West Kowloon arts hub, to display relics from Beijing’s Palace Museum in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. Her sudden announcement last month took the public by surprise and has drawn widespread criticism.

At the centre of the controversy is the complete lack of public consultation on the project. Rather than taking the usual route, where the administration makes a proposal that is then opened up to public scrutiny, this project was unilaterally decided and set in stone – save for minute details.

Such a blatant disregard and neglect of public opinion and the governance framework itself is simply unacceptable.

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And while the administration now claims that a six-week public engagement will ensue, the so-called consultation concerns only the museum’s design, exhibitions and operation, rather than asking the all-important question: whether the museum itself should even be built in the first place.

As my colleagues have pointed out in Legislative Council meetings, section 19 of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Ordinance (Chapter 601) requires the authority to “consult the public” when dealing with “matters concerning the development or operation of arts and cultural facilities, related facilities, ancillary facilities and any other matters as the authority considers fit”. It is unclear on what legal basis Lam can exempt herself and this project from the provision.

Rather than being funded by the government, as public work projects usually are, the museum will have the Jockey Club acting as sole financier, providing as much as HK$3.5 billion for the entire construction.

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Despite the government’s denial, it is not difficult to deduce that the seeking of funding from the Jockey Club was a deliberate act to bypass the need to obtain legislative approval.

Moreover, despite the lack of legislative approval and public consultation, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has already backed a HK$1.58 million “exhibition”, which merely consists of two giant posters between the Central and Hong Kong MTR stations. And that is only part of the advertising campaign, which further includes a HK$3.8 million TVB programme to promote the project.

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At no point in time was Legco consulted. Transparency as to the arrangements of the project was entirely lacking. The fact that the government has already appointed Rocco Yim Sen-kee as the design architect and obtained approval for the same from Beijing’s Palace Museum is also problematic.

It is part of the government’s policy and, indeed, a delegated function of the Architectural Services Department to design and build local public museums, and it is not for the government to deviate from the conventional museum building policy by appointing a specific architect without following any of the usual official procedures.

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If experience is the only consideration for choosing an architect for a specific project, then perhaps Lam stands a chance in justifying the selection of Yim, who is indeed a prominent architect with a wealth of experience in building museums.

I do not contest his appointment in terms of his capability and expertise, but the emphasis on experience – that experience is everything – is nothing but a myth.

The position for leading such a public works project, at the very least, warrants open or invited competition. It would be much more favourable both for the project itself and the architectural scene in general, and encourage creativity and healthy competition.

Citing the costs that would be incurred and the time that would be taken as excuses is unacceptable: the cost would be minuscule compared with the HK$3.5 billion earmarked, and the invitation to tender would only last three to five months, which might have been completed by now if this was initiated when the project started in September.

And even if Yim’s design is so specific and spectacular that no other competitor is comparable, it would have been beneficial to have at least invited a few renowned firms to compete on a specific brief.

Governing by disregarding rules, policies and legislation cannot be the way to go

Removing the possibility of competition simply hurts the creative process, particularly with the design of a museum, whose artistic nature means it can deviate from conventional architectural designs and imaginative architectural solutions can be incubated, explored and embraced.

Governing by disregarding rules, policies and legislation cannot be the way to go. Time and again, we have witnessed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying putting political motives ahead of the benefit of our society, bypassing normal procedure to implement unfavourable policies and, most of all, placing himself above the law and the Hong Kong people.

We must not let that happen again. We must continue to push for proper consultations and procedures to be followed, to ensure that every step our government takes is accountable, for that is as it should be. This is part of our core values.

Dennis Kwok is a member of the Legislative Council for the legal functional constituency and a founding member of the Civic Party