Park politics

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Across the mainland, enthusiasm may have waned for Chairman Mao’s vision of turning cities into forests of smokestacks, but Hong Kong’s ambition to engorge the territory with concrete still burns bright.

In the past decade alone, monuments like the Stonecutters Bridge, the Guangzhou rail link, the Central-Wanchai bypass, and the Macau bridge have been built out of wads of taxpayer cash .

So when former Exco member Franklin Lam describes Lantau as the “ugly duckling” of Hong Kong, he is part of a grand tradition.

Treading the same cement path as Development Secretary Paul Chan, who opened up the topic five months ago, Lam has  created a minor flap with his call for the “green development” of Lantau country parks. His remarks carry weight not just because any such suggestions feed the city’s concrete addiction. As a member of the just-created Lantau Development Advisory Committee he is in a position to do something about it.

(For those wondering, he is not cleverly trying to stoke support for artificial islands by making even those seem a better option than the trashing of country parks. Lam actually said that the marine environment is more valuable than the parks, though he didn’t say why, nor did he have anything to say about the all-but extinct pink dolphin.)

It’s not that we don’t need to have a debate about housing and land-use, or that there aren’t sections of country parks of minimal environmental value (usually as the result of deliberate abuse).

But here’s what Bill Talbot, who set up the country parks in 1965 and is now a World Bank and UN environment adviser, had to say to the Post in September:

“Experience worldwide shows that once development is allowed to invade parks and protected areas, the process continues and often accelerates. It is like the camel’s nose under the tent.”

That goes double in the deformed political economy of Hong Kong.

Hong Kongers are reminded of this daily in the current constitutional ‘consultation’, where advocates for the rich and powerful are queuing up to demand protections against the ravages of democracy. According to a SCMP reader poll in September, 70% of the population is opposed to country park development. But Lam and others know they don’t need wide public support. They just need to excise a few degraded corners of country parks, and from there the process will take care of itself.

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