20 January 2010

High Speed, High Drama – Part 2 高鐵鬧劇-下卷

It frustrates and it infuriates. At times it makes us question the very future of our city.

The express rail link (XRL) controversy has hit a nerve in Hong Kong. What started out as a rubber-stamping exercise has snowballed into an all-out social movement gaining more momentum by the day. In less than two weeks, this runaway train will collide with the upcoming five constituencies resignation (五區總辭), a de facto referendum on political reforms staged by two pan-democratic parties. The collision is guaranteed to send shock waves through our political landscape not seen since the July 1st rally in 2003. And the new decade has barely begun.

As we well know and mourn, Hong Kong’s one-of-a-kind electoral system is as bizarre as some of the English names we give ourselves. Among other oddities, half of the 60 seats in our legislature are taken by “functional constituencies” (功能組別) elected by pro-establishment special interest groups and designed to keep democratically-elected lawmakers out of the policy-making process. Like a boxer who is only allowed to block, opposition parties are left with two defensive weapons: filibusters and a veto vote over constitutional amendments. Undemocratic as it is, our electoral design has so far remained something of an academic subject. Citizens have not felt its sting on a personal, tangible level – that is until now. The XRL saga has brought to light not only the systemic absence of government accountability but also the utter powerlessness of the opposition coalition under the status quo. Our grotesque legislative process has finally reared its ugly head, and it did so in the plain sight of a watching city.

The city wouldn’t have been watching quite so closely if not for the exploits of a few dozens restless youths. Amidst the political maelstrom emerged a new social force that has caught the government completely off-guard. Known fondly in the local vernacular as the “post-80s” (八十後) generation, these trucker-hat-wearing, iPhone-wielding twenty-somethings have succeeded in turning a run-of-the-mill government infrastructure proposal into a lightning rod for social discontent. With seemingly inexhaustible time and energy, young protestors besieged the legislature for weeks. They circled the century-old building the way the Children of Israel did in the battle of Jericho, and the walls of public opinion came tumbling down. On the night lawmakers finally cast their vote on the XRL proposal, angry protestors played tug-of-war with police using iron barricades and kept transport secretary Eva Cheng Yu Wah (鄭汝樺) under house arrest in Central for six hours.

A lot of ink has been spilled by the media over these post-80s activists since the controversy erupted. Most of these discussions are based on broad generalizations and focus more on how we look at them – their frustration and angst caused by the recession and the missing rungs in the socio-economic ladders – rather than how they view the rest of us. By-and-large, these youths come from the demographic cohort of liberal-minded, Internet-savvy university graduates born during the Booming Eighties. Whether by choice or by circumstance, these twenty-somethings are not particularly career-minded and many loathe the idea of a nine-to-five job. But what they lack in ambition in the material world they make up for in passion and gumption. They root for society’s under-dogs and hate being pushed around by the upper-crust. Above all, they just want to be heard.

If there were a rulebook for politics, it would begin with the Law of Unintended Consequences. By writing off the young dissenters as a bunch of know-nothing, do-nothing social rejects, the government has inadvertently driven them into forming an unlikely alliance with the League of Social Democrats (社民連). Loud, radical and controversial, the LSD nonetheless possesses just the right mix of grit and political acumen to appeal to these young activists. In the XRL saga, the banana throwing lawmakers taught the new-kids-on the-block an important lesson on local politics: in the absence of true democracy, playing Mr. Nice Guy will get you nowhere. A little shouting and shoving around, on the other hand, can go a long way.

Still, the government appears to be doing little to defuse this ticking social time-bomb. When the Facebook and Twitter soldiers came marching in, bureaucrats responded with riot police and pepper spray, trying to fight a 21st Century cultural war using 20th Century weaponry. Meanwhile, the public seems equally unwilling and ill-prepared to get through to these young men and women. Like an annoying uncle at a family dinner, newspaper columnists and talk show hosts hand down their predictable verdict, dishing out trite rhetoric like “expressing opinions is laudable but aggressive behaviors must not be condoned.” Heres to Uncle Wong: save your breath and have a nice day. Nobody wants your opinion.

My family and I attended some of the protests at Chater Garden last weekend. The collective frustration over our government’s arrogance and lack of accountability was palpable. For a few brief moments it felt as though our long-lost civic conscience had flickered back to life. At a time when the news media are neutered by self-censorship, university students are sleepwalking through their adolescence and the opposition coalition is about to collapse on itself, the post-80s generation has shown us that all is not lost. Will these twenty-somethings rise to the occasion and grab the lightning before their fifteen minutes of fame run out? Do they hold the key to turning Hong Kong from an economic city to a true democracy? Only time will tell. But for now one thing is certain: young activists are not what is wrong with this world.

18 January 2010

High Speed, High Drama – Part 1 高鐵鬧劇-上卷

After weeks of floor debate and filibustering by pan-democratic lawmakers, the Legislative Council finally approved the HK$66.9 billion (US$8.6 billion) funding for the local section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (廣深港高速鐵路). The section will connect the city to the Mainland’s massive high-speed rail network, an ambitious program that boasts the world’s fastest and longest rail line among numerous other superlatives.

Given Hong Kongers’ penchant for convenience and connectivity, you would expect the public to welcome the new transport system with open arms and open wallets. Our government had certainly counted on the rail link proposal, like so many other infrastructure projects in the past, to sail through the legislature without anyone putting up much of a fight. But the proposal has instead stirred up a hornets’ nest and landed the government in the center of one of the biggest political crises in recent memory. Angry protestors besieged the legislature building and nearby Chater Garden (遮打花園), turning busy Central into a bloodless Tiananmen Square. Young activists on makeshift podiums shouted stirring slogans alongside hungry strikers and their camping tents. To call the government’s handling of the controversy a miscalculation would be too generous.

Under the current government proposal, the rail link will measure 26 kilometers in length and run for 11 minutes from Shenzhen (深圳) to West Kowloon (西九龍). The appendage is miniscule compared to the overall network but it comes with an eye-popping, jaw-dropping price tag, thanks to the government’s insistence to run the train route straight through the heart of the city and to stick the terminal right in the middle of an urban hub. West Kowloon not only is the site of a high-profile cultural district under construction, but it is also home to the ICC, the city’s tallest building, and numerous other residential developments. At a time when every metropolis is moving its transport hubs away from the city to improve traffic and create opportunities for under-developed areas, the current rail proposal can be likened to bringing our airport from rural Lantau Island back to its original address in East Kowloon.

Hong Kong’s strict environmental regulations require the entire railway to be built underground, which will cap the train’s top speed in the Hong Kong section at half of that of the national network. And as many engineers and experts have pointed out, these high-speed trains can very well run on MTR’s existing West Rail Line (西鐵綫), which connects the rest of Hong Kong to northwestern New Territories near the Shenzhen border. Under this so-called “shared use proposal” (共用方案), the high-speed train will utilize the under-utilized MTR tracks, thereby obviating the need for miles of tunnel to be dug. During hearings with law-makers, government officials rejected this sensible alternative because the train ride would take 13 minutes instead of 11. Putting it in less diplomatic terms, the government is bulldozing taxpayers with a plan that can potentially save passengers two minutes but will cost tens of billions more. It will be the costliest 120 seconds in the history of railway, a pork barrel project that makes Boston’s Big Dig seem prudent.

But that is not all. The two-minute time saving becomes a complete myth once you factor in the need for passengers to get off the train to clear customs. Downplaying it as a “technicality” only to be worked out after construction begins, the government has swept under the rug an enormous administrative issue that not only could throw the promise of an 11-minute ride out the window, but also question the very rationale for building the Hong Kong link-up in the first place. Perhaps our government figures that by the year 2047, Hong Kong’s “one country, two systemswill have expired and there won’t be a need for border control any more. On certain issues, it seems, our bureaucrats display exceptional far-sightedness and plan way ahead.

Sticking to the oldest trick in their political playbook, government officials went to great lengths to divert attention away from the real issues, using political truisms like job creation and economic competitiveness. In much the same way opponents to the school-based drug test program (校本驗毒計劃) are accused of being soft on drugs, naysayers to the rail project are uniformly branded as trouble-makers who deny Hong Kong its geographical merger with the Mainland. The fact that there are viable options to connecting our city to the national network other than the one put forward by the government, such as the shared use proposal, continues to evade the gullible. The use of smoke and mirrors by governments is nothing new; what is surprising is the number of people who still fall for them. Tens of thousands of self-proclaimed “railway supporters” organized Facebook groups and took to the streets in the name of Hong Kong’s future, not realizing that they had completely missed the point and in doing so became mere pawns in the government’s political game.

The rail link proposal, the largest infrastructure project since the 1997 Handover, defies common sense and has enraged the city from taxpayers and environmental activists to residents of Tsoi Yuen Tsuen (菜園村) soon to be displaced by the construction. Government officials’ refusal to budge even in the slightest is, at best, another example of their arrogance and highhandedness. At worst, it suggests that there may be much more to the story than what the public has been told. Did Beijing ordain a master plan nobody dare defy, or is it because of some gentlemen’s handshake with powerful property developers that cannot be retracted? In a city of pseudo-democracy and black-box governance, we will never know.