(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2004-5-14 )
The inauguration of the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee last week is symbolic of Hong Kong at a crossroads. It can either withdraw into the old habit of closed-door trade-offs among vested interests, or embrace the new path of open and community-based partnerships. Nothing is certain at this stage and much is at stake.
On the face of it, the committee is no small triumph for the government. After more than a year of legal battles and a series of protests against the Central and Wan Chai reclamation, it has succeeded in persuading nearly all opposition groups and those concerned about the harbour to join after winning the latest court battle on the Central reclamation scheme.
Despite continuing, albeit dwindling, public protests against reclamation, many sceptics claim that the establishment of the committee signals the end of a civic movement because most of this energy will now be absorbed into a government institution which is only advisory in nature. Such cynicism is understandable, as it is an age-old government tactic to absorb opposition voices into its bureaucratic maze, but change nothing in the end.
However, optimists believe a new path will be taken this time, for two reasons. First, public hopes have been built up during the past year, so that institutional change is now a necessity, not an option. Second, a number of officials have begun to appreciate that embracing changes is the only way to a smoother administration and better governance. These two factors alone, however, are no guarantee of a more promising future.
In the first Harbourfront Enhancement Committee meeting last week, there were three seemingly small, but important, breakthroughs initiated by civil society members. The first was an expansion of the committee's terms of reference. Transport and infrastructure are now explicitly listed as areas that it may cover. Given the current pitfalls of transport-led planning and the sensitivity of who makes the decisions among policy bureaus, this is not an insignificant step. The second breakthrough is the adoption of sustainable development principles, while the third is an open and transparent mode of operation from the very first meeting.
The committee's most urgent task is to review transport and land-use planning along the harbourfront, from Central to Causeway Bay . The work is being carried out by the Territorial Development Department, with the help of engineering consultants. If past practice is any guide, the committee will only be invited to comment on the findings at the conclusion of each stage of the review. A final decision on any outcome of the review will be made by the government.
The legitimacy of the committee does not rest on the representativeness of its members, but on the undertaking that it will champion a broad-based public participatory process as an integral part of decision-making. This requires officials to work with the public, through the committee, in an honest, transparent and whole-hearted manner.
In order to make strategic decisions that reflect community values, there is only one legitimate decision-maker: the public, via a widely accepted, broad-based participatory process. The government's rightful role is, therefore, to assist the public in making an informed decision. If a partnership between the government, the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee and civil society cannot be established, Hong Kong will miss the chance to build a long-overdue institution for public policymaking.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development and a member of Citizen Envisioning @ Harbour.