Spread the money around or get those water cannons ready

Massive reclamation east of Lantau Island is going ahead now the rich and powerful have spoken, but the government ignores the rest of society at its peril

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2018, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 9:02am

So, the government will go ahead with the reclamation to the east of Lantau Island. No surprise there, as officials up to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor herself had been hinting about it well before the policy address.

The game was up this summer when the rich guys’ think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation, published its master plan for the reclamation. Not content with the government’s original plan, it more than doubled the size, to 2,200 hectares. As it is, Lam announced she was committed to 1,700 hectares, housing up to 1.1 million people, exactly the population figure the foundation provided.

That will cost, conservatively, up to HK$500 billion, or half the government’s fiscal reserves. But remember, judging from past delays and cost overruns, you would not be amiss to at least double that figure, for a project spanning two decades.

But what about the government-appointed Task Force on Land Supply, which has yet to release the results of a public consultation on land options? That’s old news. Now that powerful people in the construction, engineering and property sectors have spoken, Lam will go along in the absence of contrary instructions from up north.

Hong Kong's future blueprint revealed: five takeaways from policy address

There are several salient points about this unprecedented reclamation.

First, both the foundation and the government are selling it as a long-term solution for the housing shortage, and that it’s being done mostly for the grass-roots and middle-income families.

But, all the figures will be calculable costs and profits in the bottom lines of the government and the construction sectors while any benefits to the have-nots are merely promises.

Second, if former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is right, the government’s reserves will dry up in the coming decades. Some people want our money before it’s gone. Having the most expensive infrastructure project in local history, with great potential to increase costs and become a financial black hole, is one way to go.

Of course, even if some reserves are left, there is no guarantee they will stay in Hong Kong when the 50-year period of “one country, two systems” ends in 2047. The central government may make claims on them, whether through tax, transfer payments or military expenditure.

I am all for spending it. But Lam and her successors must spend it more equitably, not just for the rich, in coming years. Otherwise, those police water cannons and tear gas may be the only thing to stand between the rich and the pitchforks.