By Robert Clark.
Lantau occupies a place in Chinese imagination as the end of the earth. Its location at the Pearl River mouth far from the capital has made it a sanctuary for pirates, smugglers and fleeing emperors; the ill-fated last Song emperor was enthroned at Mui Wo in 1278.
Symbolically, that came to an end with the opening of the Tsing Ma bridge in 1997. Yet getting anywhere from Lantau, or even within, is still a headache. But if current plans are any indication, those days are over. Roads, bridges and transport are at the centre of plans being drawn up by the Development Bureau and its alter ego, the Lantau Development Advisory Committee (LanDAC) (see Box).
The very reason for embarking on this latest Lantau rethink is the coming of the 50-km bridge to Macau, promised for completion in 2016. The fresh traffic flows of tourists and goods will spark a ‘bridgehead economy’, the government believes. Besides the bridge across the mouth of the Pearl River, there’s
also the tunnel-and-bridge from the airport to Tuen Mun and even a series of bridges to link Mui Wo to Hong Kong Island via artificial islands and reclamation, not to mention the round-island public highway on Lantau itself. “If we don’t develop, we will be marginalised,” says Chau Chuen Heung, a Landac member and vice-chairperson of the Islands District Council. What she and other government supporters see is for Lantau and Hong Kong to join the China growth story with the kind of heavy infrastructure build that has been applied everywhere else around the country.
The obvious part of this is tourists landing on Lantau via the bridge. The other idea is that Lantau will become a hub on the emerging delta economy. Yet it is difficult to see just what these economic opportunities are. The only apparent effort at documenting them has been by Joe Fang, a LanDAC member and researcher at the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, who points to “six large cooperation platforms” in Guangdong. These are in fact government-designated development districts with names such as the Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, the Foshan Sino-German Industrial Services Zone and the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone. With the exception of one – the Zhuhai-Hengqin New Zone, a property development next to the bridge’s western landing point –these show signs of virtually no economic activity at all.
Fang does not explain how a highway through Chek Lap Kok will benefit these service economy zones or Lantau. That’s the macro context. Back on Lantau, LanDAC has allocated different ‘themes’ to each part of the island: economic activity and housing to north Lantau, tourism and conservation to south Lantau, leisure and entertainment to the north-east and, off the east coast, the grand-sounding East Lantau Metropolis (ELM). C.Y. Leung unveiled the ELM concept in his January policy speech, although it’s actually a reworking of a 20-year-old idea for a cargo port.
Essentially it’s a major-league reclamation plan in the central waters between Lantau and Hong Kong island. The aim is to build either a single big artificial island or make multiple reclamations to expand existing islands Hei Ling Chau and Kau Yi Chau. One Development Bureau document shows Mui Wo linking to Hong Kong and Kowloon via bridges to those islands.
Which brings us back to Lantau’s roads. With the volume of visitors sharply rising, the district council and the rural committees are pushing strongly for the widening of existing roads and the construction of two new roads – a road tunnel from Mui Wo that links to the North Lantau Freeway at Tai Ho Wan, and a coastal road from Tung Chung to Tai O. Ms Chau says the south Lantau roads are engineering roads built more than 50 years ago and are unsafe. In particular, she says on public holidays and weekends the traffic is heavily backed up the winding mountain road leading down to Tai O from Ngong Ping. If built, the road from Tai O to Tung Chung would eliminate that and cut travel time to 15 minutes.
That road has long been opposed by environmentalists, who she describes as “extreme”, but crucially that project, and the Mui Wo-Tai Ho Wan tunnel, lack support and funding from the government. In the past eight months senior officials from both the Planning Dept and Development Bureau have separately attended Island District Council meetings to talk about the roads programme, and in each case have rejected it on the grounds of cost and need.
Yet the government does not apply that same caution to its wider development plans. An environmental coalition, the Save Lantau Alliance, describes LanDAC’s plans as “massive and almost devastating” and expresses concern that the East Lantau Metropolis would a “white elephant.” Indirectly, one LanDAC member seems to hold similar fears. Randy Yu(see breakout 1) has published a paper calling for a study into the need for the artificial islands project. Yu says the Civil Engineering Dept’s technical study “does not answer the critical question of why the land is needed, how much land is needed, nor how the land will be used.” He said a strategic investigation into the project would enable the public to understand its rationale “and the immense costs involved.” But within LanDAC and the government, Yu’s is a lone voice. No-one is questioning the assumptions of the new Lantau development process.
Keeping Lantau green.
Development Bureau chief Paul Chan poked a hornet’s nest earlier this year when he talked of building houses in country parks. But no-one believes that is going to happen. As Living Islands Movement secretary John Schofield puts it, this is because the parks consist mostly of “useless land” that is difficult to build on. By contrast, the desirable locations – so-called ‘enclave’ land such as the coastal strip along South Lantau Rd –are not protected. It is these green belts that are most likely to disappear under a wave of home and hotel construction. LanDAC acknowledges Lantau’s “sensitive habitats” and callsfor a “conscious effort to preserve this green heart of Lantau” but makes no mention of any specific measures to provide that protection. The country parks won’t go entirely unscathed, either. LanDAC and the Development Bureau have proposed building B&Bs or hostels through the parks.
Yet the Save Lantau Alliance says it is not necessarily opposed to those, as long as the development does not affect the ecosystem and the tranquility of Lantau. LanDAC has received dozens of proposals from its own members and the public, ranging from meditation centres to a safari park. But it’s worth noting that not everyone is unhappy with them. Tommy Leung, who runs the Palm Beach water sports centre, welcomes the idea of water sports facilities. “It’s totally what we planned for [in] building the water facilities at some spots on south Lantau.”
LanDAC: Question of interests.
The government’s attempts to reshape Lantau is the latest in a series of efforts to plan for the island’s future. Critics say that in creating it C.Y. Leung and Development Secretary Paul Chan have set aside all previous Lantau planning; the government’s explanation is that the Macau-Zhuhai bridge had made it necessary. LanDAC is at the centre of all this. In setting it up, the government seems determined to avoid any surprises. Of the committee’s 21 members only three are not either government political supporters or businesspeople from the property or tourist sectors. As if to make this point, the government appointed two new members in July: Alice Mak, a pro-Beijing member of LegCo, and property developer Vincent Ho, chairman of Shui On Land. The Save Lantau Alliance questions the LanDAC’s neutrality and believes it “can’t effectively reflect the opinions of the public to the government.”
The committee provoked a minor flap in May when nine members declared they had business interests on Lantau, including one who revealed he and his family owned 32 properties.
That was Randy Yu, a member of the Islands District Council, general manager of Sino Land and is the son-in-law of Heung Yee Kuk kingpin Lau Wong-fat. The government argues that LanDAC is an advisory body, and the members’ interests won’t directly affect its decisions. But the definition of interests is particularly narrow. One member, Peter Lam, is also chairman of both the Lai Sun property group and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Lai Sun has a HK$3.8bn investment in the Zhuhai Hengqin zone at the other end of the Macau bridge. It is not clear whether Lam is representing the interests of his company, Hong Kong tourism, or Lantau development? The presumption seems to be that what is good for Lai Sun is good for Hong Kong.
Robert Clark maintains a blog and can be reached at