Hong Kong Turns Activist

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

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.