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Hong Kong: Undemocratic Legco set to approve the world's most costly express train

The Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong is about to approve the funding for the world's most expensive Express Rail Link (ERL)'s construction plan on the coming Friday (Dec 18). According to the government budget plan announced in November 2009, the 26 km ERL will cost HKD67 billions (USD8.9 billions). In a polity without democracy, oppositional voices could only be heard in street protests and the Internet.

Background

Back in 2006, the Hong Kong government opted for a shared rail line system (by using the pre-existing west rail) to connect with the National Express Rail Link system. According to the plan, it takes one hour to travel from Hong Kong terminus to Guangzhou station. However, in order to save an extra 12 minutes, the Legco in 2007 voted for a separate rail line system and authorized the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited (MTRCL) to proceed with further planning and design of the Hong Kong Section, without aware of the implication on the construction cost. The MTRCL came up with a plan in 2008 with an estimation of construction cost at HKD39.5 billions. Moreover, a natural village, Choi Yuen Village, in Northern New Territories will be demolished for the construction of a supporting train station. However, the budget announced in October 2009 rocketed to HKD65.2 billions, and in November the new estimation was further increased to HKD66.9 billion, excluding the extra highway reconstruction cost in West Kowloon for accommodating the rail terminus.

Obviously the ERL will never be able to cover its construction cost. The Government decides to adopt a concession approach to fund the whole construction cost, and upon completion, the MTRCL will be granted a service concession for subsequent operation and pay the Government annually for the concession (as if it is going to make profit).

With less than 3 month discussion about the rocketed budget, the Legco Public Works Subcommittee, dominated by functional constituency (representatives of corporate and professional interest) and pro-establishment political parties, passed the funding on 13 of December.

Citizens have been campaigning against the construction plan in the streets and on the Internet since early February this year. While the mainstream media are dominated by government's information and propaganda, a number of citizen reporters from inmediahk.net started a series of reports on Choi Yuen Village and the unjust planning of the ERL.

Unjust planning

Ip Iam-chong pointed out that the one-stop only design of the ERL has further marginalized the population in New Territories:

像廣深港高速鐵路,香港段只有西九站,接著便是深圳的福田與龍華,經過東莞的虎門,另一端的終站是廣州的石壁。以香港段為例,鐵路經過也跨過了新界西,但 沒有一個站,如果新界西居民將來要享用鐵路,則要反方向往南,到西九站才行。很明顯,人口增長最快、基層人口比例高的新界西是被排斥的。

In the case of GZ-SZ-HK ERL, we only have one stop in HK section, which is in West Kowloon, the next station is Futian and Longhua in Shengzhen, then Humen in Dongguan and Shibi in Guangzhou. The rail road passes through western New Territories (NT) without a single station and if residents from the NT want to take the train, they have to travel south to the West Kowloon. It is very obvious that the Western N.T district, with the fastest growth in grassroots population is being marginalized in the planning.

Citizen groups from Western N.T started demonstrating in June and demanded the terminus to be built in Yuen Long to help the development of Western N.T and also to save the Choi Yuen village from demolition. (Yip Po Lam's citizen report)

group

Campaign against the development myth

However, most of the Hong Kong people are unaware of the implications of the ERL. Hoidick highlighted an university survey showing that when the construction fee for the ERL increased from HK39.5 billions to HKD 63 billion in June 2009, more than half of the local population was not aware of the budget plan, but at the same time, more than 70% supported the construction. The public tends to believe that grand construction plan can help the local economy without aware of the social and environmental cost.

Moreover, the mainstream media were flooded with government information, which are often misleading, for example the fact that the Guangzhou (GZ) ERL station will be located in Panyu, which is far away from the GZ downtown. Hoidick visited the Guangzhou (GZ) ERL construction site in Shibi to indicate the misleading message that the ERL traveling time between HK-GZ is 48 minutes. It actually takes another 20 mins to travel from Shibi station to downtown GZ via local metro line.

In order to raise the public awareness on the environmental impact, a group of environmental activists organized a 26 kilometer demonstration along the ERL route.

26 km ERL route

26 km ERL route

A better alternative neglected

A group of professionals put forward an alternative ERL plan in early October 2009. The new plan sets the terminus in Northwest N.T, connects the ERL with the western railway and airport express, reduces the construction cost by more than 50% and avoids the demolition of Choi Yuen Village. However, the government refused to prolong its consultation with the professional group and the public.

On 19 of October 2009, a few hundred people gathered in Choi Yuen Village to will their support to the villagers against the ERL construction. But the action could not stop the Executive Council from passing the construction plan on 20 of October.

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Undemocratic Legco dominated by vested interests

More than 2000 people took to the street on 29 of November demanding the Legco to review the design and reject the funding. Knowing that the budget will be eventually passed in the undemocratic Legco, Tse Kwundong wrote a reflection on his experience in Legco public hearing after the demonstration:

為了高鐵一事,我出 席了一些會議,並明白了其運作,才了解到問題的根源。9月23日立法會鐵路事宜小組委員會邀請公眾發表意見,每人三分鐘,當天早上我也前往,希望用我的理 據來說服委員會成員,尤其民建聯和功能界別議員(參看 阿東在立法會.三分鐘反高鐵講稿)。 可是,民建聯的劉江華坐了一會就走了,至於功能界別如何鍾泰等,是中國建築的董事,有份承接地鐵工程,你怎能說服到他放棄利益?… 然而因立法會的選舉機制,選出的建制派和功能界別議員已佔了 大半數,幾乎一定會通過,其中不少功能界別議員因商業或政治利益所在,根本肯定全心全意投贊成票,公理根本不存,我們的聲音和理據再壯,在立法會也沒有代 表性,這才是立法會的問題…

Because of the ERL issue, I attended some Legco hearings and got a better picture of how the system works and what is the source of our problem. On Sep 23, the rail road sub-committee invited the public to express their opinion and each person had 3 mins. I attended the meeting, trying very hard to convince the pro-establishment and functional constituency members. However, Lau Kong Wah, Legco councilor from DAB only sat there briefly and left. As the broad member of China Construction Limited, Ho Chung Tai was directly involved in the ERL construction contract, there is no way that he could give up his interest… The election system of our Legco makes sure that the pro-establishment and functional constituents have the majority vote, and they surely support the government bills and motions. No to mention the fact that many functional constituency members have direct business and political interests in the ERL, they would certainly support it wholeheartedly. There is no justice and no matter how reasonable we are, our voices cannot be heard in the Legco. This is the key issue.

1218 Siege the Legco

As predicted, despite the fact that all the pan democrats vote against the ERL finance plan, it was passed on 3 of December. In order to raise public awareness towards the unjust planning and undemocratic system, a post-80 young activist group started touring around HK last Saturday and Sunday. Today (December 16), they have started a 3-day march around the Legco building to prepare for the mobilization on December 18. Below is excerpted from their press release (via inmediahk.net):

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我們是一班80後年輕人。我們反對立法會倉卒審批廣深港高速鐵路香港段669億撥款。高鐵濫用公帑,破壞家園,漠 視市民的參與權;我們一直以各種方法反對都不被理會,如今撥款在即,我們決定以一項和平而持久的行動再次表明心志。我們將於星期三 (2009年12月16日) 下午四時開始圍繞立法會苦行,直到星期五(2009年12月18日)立法會高鐵撥款議決為止,藉此呼籲市民當日前來包圍立法會,並盡最後努力呼籲支持政府 方案的議員懸崖勒馬。

We are a group of post 80 youth. We are against the 66.9 billions funding plan of the ERL construction. We believe that the construction is an abuse of public resources and tax money, it ruins people's home and there is no room for public discussion and engagement. Our voices have been disregarded and now the budget is about to pass, we decide to demonstrate our will through a peaceful and determined action. We will start a march around the Legco building on Dec 16 4 p.m until Dec 18 when the Legco has made its final decision on the ERL budget. We want to urge other Hong Kong people to come to the Legco on that day and try our best to stop the construction plan.

The facebook has become a most important platform for individuals to aggregate and coordinate petitions and protest actions against the ERL. So far more than 650 people have signed up for the 1218 siege the Legco event and the largest anti-ERL group has more than 42,000 members. Below are photos and videos created by members of the group for the 1218 mobilization:

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