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Hong Kong housing

Building on ‘Grand Canyon’ could help solve Hong Kong’s housing woes, unfortunately the People’s Liberation Army got there first

In the battle to find land, former lawmaker James Tien wants army to hand over ‘underutilised’ spaces to help solve city’s housing crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 9:02am

The warning sign on the gate near the public housing estate could not be any clearer. “Danger. Keep Out,” it reads. Except, the gate the sign hangs on is open, as it normally is, and a group of hikers, largely unconcerned by the sign, are passing through as they often do, on their way to climbing Castle Peak.

The landscape in this part of Hong Kong’s New Territories West is ideal for hiking, reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, rock has been gauged out of the earth by wind, rain, and occasionally, heavy artillery. The area is, after all, a firing range for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

On this morning the group continues on its way unconcerned, stopping occasionally to chat under shelters made of bamboo sticks and cloth, built up over time by regular walkers. Others rest on seats of tile, placed at regular intervals along the trail.

There is something missing from the area, however, and that’s soldiers – which is strange considering where the group has chosen to take its stroll.

But the army are not regular visitors to these parts, and the military site serves as more of a backyard for the area’s residents than as a testing ground for battle and tactics. And it is some backyard, measuring 2,263 hectares (5,592 acres), it is the equivalent of 119 Victoria Parks, or 18,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It is here that James Tien Pei-chun, honorary chairman of the pro-establishment Liberal Party and chairman of developer Manhattan Holdings, wants to build houses. Tien raised eyebrows when he made the suggestion in an interview with the Post, calling on the PLA to release part of this “underutilised” military site to solve the city’s housing woes.

It is not a new idea, but it is a contentious one, and something his political allies have steered clear of discussing publicly.

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Tien says he is not eyeing on any other “symbolic” sites, such as the PLA headquarters in Admiralty, just the firing range, which he believes to be a perfect location for public rental flats.

“Hong Kong is part of China,” Tien says. “Our country is always happy to help when we face difficulties.

“We are now facing a severe shortage of flats, and the task force [on land supply] has been doing a tough job in sourcing land. Why can’t we ask Beijing to liaise with the PLA on releasing part of the land to Hong Kong?”

The public consultation on land supply, where Hongkongers have been asked to chose between 18 options to find the 1,200 hectares necessary for the city’s economic and social development, is now into its second month.

But conspicuous by their absence are the 19 military sites in Hong Kong which account for 2,750 hectares of land. The single Tsing Shan firing range across the Tuen Mun and Yuen Long region makes up more than 80 per cent of that total area.

Tien – a “bad boy” of Hong Kong politics who was expelled from the nation’s top political advisory body in 2014 – said the task force’s abrupt decision to remove military sites from the consultation process was “understandable”, as the government may not want to be seen to be exerting pressure on Beijing.

However, he does not think that means the central government would necessarily reject the idea.

According to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, the central government is responsible for the defence of Hong Kong, and the PLA occupies 19 sites it inherited from the British military when the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997. But, the Garrison Law, says if the local government requires any part of a military site for public use, it can seek approval from Beijing.

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“We now have the high-speed rail [connected to the mainland] and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge … They [PLA soldiers] could practise shooting on the mainland,” Tien said.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen, chairwoman of the Legislative Council’s housing panel, said she respected Tien’s suggestion but believed it would be the best to let the PLA decide whether such sites were essential to its operations.

“I hope we can focus our attention on the 18 options shortlisted by the task force on land supply instead so we can come up with a conclusion by the end of the consultation exercise,” she said.

The site is close to Shenzhen Bay, with a bird’s-eye view of the sea being an attraction from Po Lo Shan, dubbed as Mini Grand Canyon.

Tien added the PLA had not been deployed during the past 20 years, and believes the chances of them being needed only decreased after the heavy six-year sentence given to Leung Tin-kei for his role in the Mong Kok riots.

Glancing around the mountain, some hikers agreed with Tien, with Mr Pang observing that many Hongkongers were living poorly in subdivided flats.

Mr Chan, who walks among the hills and rocks on a daily basis, said: “It seems like a large part of it is useless [for PLA]. I support releasing part of it out.”

He said he occasionally heard shots being fired, usually in the morning time, but that did not last long.

The only time Chan had spotted soldiers in the area was in April 2017, when PLA issued a notice outside the gate declaring that it was a military area and intruders could face prosecution. The PLA’s appearance came after people flooded the area following a television programme highlighting the trail’s existence.

“Two soldiers had guarded the metal gates for a few days, [and the] PLA also sent out two trucks clearing off the plants some regular hikers had planted,” he said, adding things went back to normal as hikers returned to the area.

According to the government’s monthly press release, firing practice takes place at Tsing Shan firing range from 8am to 9pm almost daily, from Monday to Saturday.

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However, the hikers, and district councillor Ching Chi-hung, say that is not the case. Ching said she had only received two to three calls this year from Home Affairs asking her to advise residents not to enter the area because of a live-fire exercise.

In response to questions from the Post, the government said all existing military sites were active, and it had no plans to seek any change in the use of these sites.

If the army carries out any practise which involves “more intensive use of firing arms as compared to regular exercises”, the government said it would notify the relevant concerned bodies. But it did not disclose the frequency of such notifications.

The PLA responded by saying it had “reasonably used the land according to law” and no sites were left idle, although it did not confirm the frequency with which practice took place.

“The usage and management of military sites is a matter of defence, and is responsible by the central government,” a PLA spokesman said.

Both authorities said the number of soldiers stationed in the city was classified, but external estimated put estimated the figure at somewhere between 8,000 to 10,000.