Hong Kong’s Government Is Spending Billions Taking Land from the Sea
The scale of land reclamation in the semi-autonomous territory is revving up to unprecedented heights.
A Victoria Harbor land reclamation project to build a highway. Image: Justin Heifetz
In Hong Kong, space is scarce, comes at a premium, and who has it can quickly become political. And when the semi-autonomous territory has difficulty building on land to create more space, whether it’s for housing or infrastructure, the government often turns to the sea.
Through expensive, time intensive, and complicated land reclamation projects, Hong Kong is continually extending out and into the water, where there wasn’t land before. The process is nothing new: the first land reclamation project here started in 1887, and some 45 square miles of the Chinese metropolis has been formed through reclamation since.
Today, the scale of land reclamation in the former British colony is revving up to unprecedented heights. The government is building a new, third airport runway from reclaimed land, an eight-year-long, $18 billion project that has decimated nearly an entire population of endangered dolphins, along with a $592 million extension of roadways from the city’s iconic Victoria Harbor.
But reclamation isn’t all about these megastructures. It’s also, mostly, about how to make room for new homes.
The government is now planning eight major reclamation projects, according to a written statement provided to Motherboard from the Development Bureau, the agency responsible for land resources and urban planning. Most of them are extension projects for sleepy new towns on Lantau, Hong Kong’s largest island and home to many preserved country parks, and in the city’s more rural New Territories, to make way for more public and private housing.
“If new land is created, that doesn’t mean it will be allocated correctly—and that it will solve poor people’s housing problems.”
At the same time, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, north of Kowloon, there are nearly 3,000 acres of so-called brownfield sites—land mostly used for illegal logistics operations like storage facilities or toxic e-waste dump sites, but otherwise suited for legal development projects. Also in the New Territories, the city’s three major developers are sitting on 2,123 acres of undeveloped land. Furthermore, over 100 school buildings are unoccupied across Hong Kong. And in the city’s dense urban center, there’s even an estimated 500-acre bank of undeveloped land.
If land is readily available, then why is Hong Kong's government so aggressively spending billions to build from the sea?
The most ambitious of the proposed land reclamation projects is far and away the East Lantau Metropolis, which outlines plans for a new city that will be built at sea level on a large artificial island. The government says the city will house up to one million people by 2030, two-and-a-half miles away from any shore, and will cost up to $51 billion.
“The government’s sound bite is very easy: we live in shoebox apartments with no space,” Tom Yam, a vocal environmental activist who heads the Save Lantau Alliance, told me when we met at Hong Kong’s International Finance Center.
Hong Kong’s government mostly justifies its race for space as a quick fix for an increasingly broken social system. The city is small, jam-packed, and boasts the most expensive property market in the world. Only 25 percent of the territory’s 427 square-miles are developed and less than four percent of Hong Kong’s total land is used for both public and private housing. That means about 7.4 million people are competing for 17 square miles of living space.
Hong Kong also suffers from a profound wealth gap—the world’s second worst behind New York City—and many people pile into tenement spaces the size of coffins just to survive. Even those who are educated and have steady incomes often live in apartments no larger than parking spaces. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has made cooling the property market and creating adequate housing a top priority—but it’s now more expensive than ever.
“That is quite a paradox that after the Communist Party took over this city, for 20 years, the rich-poor gap has widened,” lawmaker Eddie Chu told me at the Legislative Council building. Chu won the most votes in last year’s election—and is one of the last pro-democracy lawmakers still standing after a political purge from Beijing.
“The government has promised that land reclamation is the solution for the housing problem, but I don’t believe that,” Chu said. “If new land is created, that doesn’t mean it will be allocated correctly—and that it will solve poor people’s housing problems.”
Hong Kong’s New Territories have a complicated history because of British colonization. There, Hong Kong’s indigenous people sought to preserve their land rights when England took the area over at the end of the 19th century. Soon after, the Heung Yee Kuk, an elected body of village councilors that still exists today to represent the land interests of those indigenous people, was born.
“It was the only representative organization then as such and they were masters of the game,” David Faure, a prominent historian of modern China, told me over the phone. “They did representative politics half a century before the rest of Hong Kong—they are not just village folks.”
The Heung Yee Kuk, casually known as the Kuk, proved shrewd at Chinese politics. The Kuk’s land rights were enshrined in the Basic Law—Hong Kong’s mini-constitution—promising land to every male of the subsequent generation, a mechanism known as the Small House Policy. But as Hong Kong modernizes, the Kuk’s role in land deals has become more questionable.
“Who is an indigenous villager?” Faure said. “It is true villagers have small houses, but no one just handed it over to them. How do you get that plot of land?”
The Kuk have been accused of taking advantage of this policy to unfairly capitalize from land in the New Territories. For example, small houses can be built only three floors high, but these houses can still be large or luxurious. Some Kuk were found guilty of illegally selling their land rights to developers.
“The government wants to take the path of least resistance—the middle of the sea.”
The 3,000 acres of brownfield sites in the New Territories also belong to the Kuk, and fall mostly under the control of Chinese crime syndicates known as triads. Last year, the government suddenly abandoned its plans for building a 17,000-unit public housing estate on a brownfield storage site after private exchanges with Kuk councilors.
“Brownfield patches remain untouched, whether it’s container storage or waste treatment, and the landlords are sitting on it and waiting for the best offer” from developers, said Yam. “The government wants to take the path of least resistance—the middle of the sea.”
Chu took on the Kuk last year in the elections for legislature over their ties to the brownfield sites in the New Territories, and was placed under police watch after death threats to both him and his family. Chu said the brownfield sites are “a lawless area… an underground world that is administered by local thugs, landlords, and Heung Yee Kuk,” and that the New Territories is becoming a safe haven for different kinds of illegal activities that can stymie land development.
“Reclaiming land is an easy course to be taken by the government as nobody owns the seabed,” Jeffrey Herbert, a retired senior superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force, told me over email. “The New Territories is a mess of land rights, old land, ding uk [small houses], and modern day developments. The government would be locked in battles for years.”
Former Kuk leader Lau Wong-fat died in July. The council’s current chairman, Lau Wong-fat’s son, Kenneth Lau, declined my interview request.
Walk toward the waterfront of Hong Kong Island, just steps away from the city’s exhibition center, and there’s a stunning view of Kowloon across the harbor, with its gleaming glass office towers stretching into the sky. But approaching the water’s edge, the harbor is cut off by corrugated steel barriers. Behind them, trucks drive over dirty sludge. Loud cranes dig into the ground, while large machines suck water from the ground. Metal collides, making piercing noises that shoot out under the pounding summer sun. Waves of dust puff out beneath brightly colored tractors. Plastic waste and construction material floats on in the harbor.
This is the Wan Chai Development Phase II Project, a large-scale land reclamation project on Victoria Harbor that cost over half-a-billion dollars just to get off the ground in 2009. The purpose is to create major transportation infrastructure where there isn’t any natural space, so the government is creating a road from undersea land in the harbor. The development is projected to end in 2021.
Reclamation projects like this aren’t only expensive, but can also cause serious damage to the environment. The public may never know the extent of that harm, because of an openly compromised system for carrying out environmental impact assessments, or EIAs, on new projects. In Hong Kong, EIAs are conducted by the proponent, meaning the government will commission either itself or government-tied consultancies to carry them out.
“This is why [most] EIAs are approved by the environmental advisory board and also the head of the Environmental Protection Department,” said Chu. “Consultancies [that] are owned by large mega-companies have good relationships with the government in order to get the contract.”
And then there are the literal tons of sand reclamation projects require. Sand is essential to fill in that new space reclaimed from the sea—and the world is quickly running out of the stuff. It is well documented that sand mining has become a global environmental crisis, destroying beaches and riverbeds in its wake.
“The imported marine sand is predominantly sourced from the Mainland of China and then shipped to Hong Kong,” the bureau spokespersons said in their emailed statement. “The Development Bureau does not have information relating to the cost of imported sand of individual project [sic].” The spokespersons could not offer any more details as to the amounts of sand imported or where in Mainland China the sand comes from.
“In general, a land reclamation project will first have to go through a feasibility study, then followed by relevant statutory procedures as well as detailed design phase before the commencement of construction,” the spokespersons responded when asked about what happens during a large-scale reclamation project from start to finish. No further details were given.
Read more: Hong Kong Has No Space Left for the Dead
Chu said that during the government meetings he attends, resources for land reclamation like sand are rarely discussed. If it comes up, he said, it’s most often the engineering sector lobbying to use Hong Kong’s dramatic amount of construction waste—about five tons a day—in reclamation projects.
The engineering sector has much to benefit from new reclamation projects because it can reuse all of this waste. Tseung Kwan O Area 137 sits at the edge of a massive landfill and is one of two sites housing the city’s construction waste. Much of that waste will be used in the airport’s third runway construction and other reclamation projects, according to an emailed statement to Motherboard from Thomson Sze, a spokesperson for the Civil Engineering and Development Department. The government is studying a way to develop Area 137 into housing after 2019—which creates a further incentive to use the waste. The waste site itself is built on reclaimed land.
If the East Lantau Metropolis gets the green light, Yam is concerned about the effect of climate change on a city built at sea level in 2030. “Imagine the consequences of global warming,” he said, “or even during a typhoon or hurricane.”
Along with environmentalists, who protest development to preserve local ecology, Chu said the government is to some extent spinning a narrative that the Kuk are a common enemy behind the city’s land problems. He believes the issue is more nuanced, and that the government administration is trying to divert the focus away from another core problem: serving its own interests.
The city’s Town Planning Board, which is mostly in charge of the territory’s urban plans, consists entirely of members appointed by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader. In Chu’s estimation, the government is ramping up the scale of its land reclamation projects to not only avoid land issues in the New Territories, but also to continue financing large industries—namely, the engineering and consulting sectors, which have the largest stake in new projects.
“With projects like the East Lantau Metropolis, my perception is that it is a new round of infrastructure to continue this industry for the next 20 to 30 years,” said Chu. “When you look at the figures, it just doesn’t make any sense to spend so much money… you don’t have enough population or enough economic activities to fill it in.”
But land in Hong Kong is complicated. And some people, like retired police department superintendent Herbert, who now lives in a New Territories village, believe looking out to the ocean is the best path forward. “In fact, I believe building on or over the sea may be the best thing for Hong Kong,” Herbert told me.
The Development Bureau maintained that “the government has been increasing land supply through a multi-pronged approach, including reclamation outside Victoria Harbor, in order to address the pressing demand for additional land for economic development and for improving living space.”
For Chu—dubbed the territory’s “king of votes”—the core of the issue is that the people of Hong Kong have no say in what happens to their land. Whether it’s cleaning up crime in brownfield sites to make way for accessible public housing, or stopping a plot of land in the urban center from being sold to yet another luxury developer, there are little to no options for most to voice their objections.
“Since the government does not surrender its power to the people, you can see land administration is one of the most mysterious areas of the government—nobody in Hong Kong can have a say in it,” Chu said. “We are so far away from a democratic system of land administration and town planning.”
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