Hong Kong Turns Activist

Civic activism is on
the rise in Hong Kong and is here to stay.

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In a city where getting
and spending has long been considered a far more sacred right than
democratic principles, Hong Kong is finding itself in the middle of
an anomalous surge of civic activism, exemplified by Wednesday’s
police raid on Queen’s Pier to clear out protesters who had
been camped there for three months in an effort to halt its
destruction. They dragged some 30 die-hard activists off the pier as
hundreds of people who had maintained an overnight vigil looked on.

“Queen’s
pier is just the beginning,” Chu Hoi-dick, a local activist,
told the South China Morning Post. “We want to protect Hong
Kong’s public space and make the planning process more
democratic.”

Chu and his allies have
won precious few of their tilts at the government windmill over the
years as landmarks here seem to vanish overnight. But ever since half
a million people took to the streets on July 1, 2003 to protest a
national security law that they didn’t like, local activism has
been rising. The causes are many, including demands for greater
democracy, but at the heart of many concerns are issues that directly
affect well being and the sense of belonging as Hong Kong citizens:
town planning, urban renewal, cultural development, heritage
preservation, the environment, land disposal and neighborhood
sustainability.

The local
administration, with an authoritarian government in Beijing looking
over its shoulder, has so far seemed to be on cruise control,
blithely unresponsive to protest. Seemingly every weekend there is a
march of one kind or another from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to
the government offices in Central, stopping traffic along Queen’s
Road.

The activist groups are
mostly comprised of local residents, professional bodies, politicians
and youth groups. With the legislature largely dominated by
self-serving, business-oriented functional constituencies, a lot of
Hong Kong’s middle class and professionals see civic activism
as a means to combat their helplessness in the face of an
administration hooked on top-down policy making and whose highly-paid
officials are either apathetic to or ignorant of the plight and
aspirations of ordinary citizens.

“A civil society
with the active participation of the middle-class and professionals
is a civil society that demands more participation, rather than
one-way consultation,” wrote W K Chan, director of the Hong
Kong Policy Research Institute, in a paper titled “Urban
Activism for Effective Governance: A New Civil Society Campaign in
the Hong Kong SAR”, which was presented at a conference in
early June. “And when problem resolution does not work,
continual engagement becomes even more important. Perhaps it is the
failure to truly engage, that sees civil society and government
continually at odds with each other.”

The government defends
itself by saying consultation exercises are widely used to gather
public opinion on policy initiatives. But as Dr. Chan said, “Often
the usefulness of the conclusion is limited by the one-way nature of
the consultation (the public responding to questions from the
government). A two-way dialogue will help open up the issues and
reflect the public’s genuine concerns.”

While two-way dialogue
is an important goal, it is only a means to an end and its
effectiveness depends heavily on how willing government is to listen
and connect. Hong Kong’s citizens have been told repeatedly
that they are not politically mature enough to have a representative
government. However, through social activism in areas that affect
their daily lives, and possibly the lives of the next generation,
they have tried to engage government in constructive ways when they
see that public policy and governance are deeply flawed.

The more prominent
episodes of citizen protest include the West Kowloon Cultural
District land tender, in which public pressure brought the process to
a complete halt in early 2006 and stopped the construction of an arts
center that also would have awarded a vast amount of the 40-hectare
project to a single bidder for commercial development.

If it hadn’t been
for public outcry led by a concern group from the cultural sector
called People’s Panel consisting of professional bodies,
community groups and academics formed in November 2004, the
government would have dished out a 50-year leasehold land grant and
30-year management right of the site to one single developer
consortium, to be chosen out of three of the territory’s
enormously rich land barons.

Photo by Derrick Chang

"Hong Kong citizens' rights are taken away"
Other issues have not
been so successful. Harbor reclamation has largely gone ahead. The
Wedding Card Street area, a colorful warren of vibrant small shops
and homes, is being demolished now. The Tamar government
headquarters, a massive government complex on the waterfront, is
still underway. The historic Star Ferry pier on Hong Kong island has
been destroyed despite the presence of thousands of protesters before
the start of demolition. And there is the ongoing saga of Queen’s
Pier.

The strife, which is a
continuance of the civic movement by a youth activist group, Local
Action, to try to save the Star Ferry pier in late 2006, is a step up
in pressure tactics. Three members of the group went on a hunger
strike on July 28, while several others have kept a 24-hour guard on
the site since April 26. The group also persuaded the new Secretary
for Development, Carrie Lam, to attend two discussion forums on July
29, which attracted a packed crowd to the pier. It was the first time
any incumbent director-grade official had engaged in a face-to-face
dialogue with activists.

 

The key issue, in the
words of one activist, is whether there is any commitment on the
government’s part towards cultural development and heritage
protection after decades of top-down policy making in the areas of
community and neighborhood planning, the use of public space and land
development. Graham Street, a colorful area at the edge of Central
in Sheung Wan, is certain to be the next battleground – or one
of them, along with the Central Police Station compound, which
contains a total of 17 historic buildings.

The government has
promised to protect the 17 structures. But if the Marine Police
Station in Kowloon is any example, they may remain only as shells.

“The demolition
of Queen’s Pier as well as of other old neighborhoods is
robbing the citizens of the right to live their daily commoners’
lives. If this is allowed to continue without check, what do we
really have left in our lives?” said one of the hunger
protestors. “People come to Queen’s Pier to enjoy leisure
activities and social gatherings. If it is removed, part of people’s
lives will be ripped away.”

Despite the activists’
efforts, Carrie Lam indicated that government would go ahead with its
demolition plans, as the demolition of both Star Ferry and Queen’s
Pier had been scheduled in the Central Reclamation Plan, which is
filling in sizable amounts of Hong Kong’s harbor and bidding
fair to destroy it as a tourist attraction. Fences went up around the
site on Wednesday night to keep the activists away.

“Urban renewal is
emotional and complicated as it involves re-locating and displacing
many people,” one activist says. As pointed out by an activist
urban planner, redevelopment for profit is not the same as urban
regeneration. It seems stakeholders have a long way to go in their
attempt to make URA and government see the difference.

On balance, activist
groups under different banners, with their limited resources, limited
access to the media, and little past experience to draw on can hardly
be any match for a government that is backed by deep-pockets, vast
connections and a formidable PR machine. No doubt it has been a steep
learning curve for activists. But they are learning.

“The abundance of
issues in urban development and environment ensures that the new
brand of civil society activism is sustainable: it is here to stay,
not because the middle class or professionals have political
ambitions (though some may) or righteous indignation over some social
ills (though some do), but because those were the issues they care
about, in a society which they feel they own,” W K Chan
predicted.

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