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October 26th, 2011:

Weasel words from Donald Tsang on new air quality objectives for HK

South China Morning Post – 26 Oct 2011

Those concerned with Hong Kong’s awful roadside pollution may have been heartened by the chief executive’s undertaking on RTHK last week to implement the territory’s long delayed new air quality objectives (AQOs).

AQOs are supposed to be the benchmark for an acceptable level of air quality. Hong Kong’s current AQOs were established in 1987 and are now hopelessly outdated, but the Environment Bureau nevertheless continues with its daily farce of producing an air pollution index based on these AQOs, which are way below World Health Organisation guidelines.

So when the bureau says roadside pollution is “severe” or very high – as it frequently is – you can assume the level is horrendous.

When the chief executive was questioned last week by Erica Chan Fong-ying, Clean Air Network (CAN) spokesperson, about the delay in implementing new AQOs for Hong Kong, he said they would be introduced in the Legislative Council for discussion before the end of this year. “I hope that the law will be enacted, and I will try my very best to have them enacted, by the end of my term of office,” said Tsang, who steps down in June next year.

However, these appear to be weasel words since, according to an e-mail from CAN, they differ significantly from what Legco-member Audrey Eu Yuet-mee was told during a meeting with the bureau. She says she was told by Anissa Wong Sean-yee, permanent secretary for the environment, that the AQOs will not be discussed until “the second half of next year”.

In an e-mail from Eu to CAN, she wrote, “In other words [new AQOs will not be introduced] within this Legco term. I asked whether there was any legislative slot for new AQOs and the answer was, no.”

CAN comments in its e-mail, “Empty and disingenuous words appear to be an ingrained habit of the chief executive,” while noting that two years have passed since the government proposed new AQOs to the public for consultation.

The government was criticised by the Ombudsman in May for dragging its feet in implementing new AQOs, and Tsang promised then that new AQOs would be in place by the end of the year. That promise looks hollower by the day.


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Political parties in a legal grey area

South China Morning Post – 26 Oct. 2011

Little is known about the way in which political parties are financed in Hong Kong. But some light has now been shed as a result of the leaking of documents said to detail donations made by media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying to the pro-democracy camp.

According to the documents, Lai gave more than HK$28 million in total to the Democratic Party and the Civic Party over the past few years, making him the single biggest donor to the democrats. He is entitled to make such donations and is one of many wealthy people in Hong Kong who provide funding for a variety of causes.But the revelation has reignited the debate about whether political parties should be more transparent and accountable. Hong Kong still lacks a law which would put political parties on a firmer footing. This would provide for better regulation and also help their development.

At present, political parties are registered as companies under the Companies Ordinance. The fact that there is no law governing the limits and disclosure of political donations outside of elections gives the parties maximum flexibility. This was, perhaps, helpful while Hong Kong was in the early stages of political party development, but the lack of regulation and transparency has given rise to worries that recipients, whichever camp they belong to, may be subject to manipulation.

Beijing’s hostility towards the pro-democracy camp may have made the rich and famous more wary about being seen to openly back the parties regarded as being in opposition. There are reasons to believe that donors may be scared away if they cannot remain anonymous. That Lai’s contribution accounted for the lion’s share of the two parties’ funding underlines the difficulties they have in reaching out to a broader spectrum of supporters. The leading pro-Beijing party, the DAB, however, does not seem to have encountered any difficulties in seeking donations. It received over HK$48 million in 2009-10. But it is equally reluctant to identify its donors.

The government rejected having a party law five years ago. One of the reasons given was that political parties are still in a relatively early stage of development. But the political landscape has since changed tremendously. For the first time, the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections has been given a clear timetable. There are more ministers with a party background, while more parties have been formed in recent years. Political parties should be playing a more important role in governance as we move towards universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. It is difficult to see how Hong Kong can carry on without a law to help parties better develop. The lack of legal recognition for parties means they are in a legal grey area. Legislation can provide the standing for parties to develop – and bring their finances out into the open.

Delta bridge can go ahead as legal challenge ends

South China Morning Post – 26 Oct 2011

Deadline passes for final appeal challenge with no fresh instructions for plaintiff’s lawyer

The legal challenge to construction of a bridge across the Pearl River estuary to Macau and Zhuhai is over.

Yesterday’s deadline for the plaintiff, 66-year-old Tung Chung resident Chu Yee-wah, to take the case to the city’s top court passed without her lawyers receiving any instruction to do so.

Chu, a public housing tenant, secured a judicial review of the Hong Kong- Zhuhai-Macau bridge, arguing that the government’s environmental impact assessment of the project failed to meet its own standards for gauging the likely effect on local pollution levels. Her lawyers said the assessment should have included a study of the estuary environment’s condition if the HK$83 billion bridge was not built. The bridge will start from a point on Lantau island near Tung Chung.

The case was upheld in the Court of First Instance but overturned on appeal by the government in September. It cost the Legal Aid department HK$1.4 million and added an estimated HK$6.5 billion to the cost of building the bridge, according to the Transport and Housing Bureau.

Alan Wong Hok-ming, a lawyer for Chu, said he had heard nothing from her before yesterday’s deadline. “We have told her the legal considerations in the case and it was up to her to decide,” he said.

Chu had been quoted as saying that she regretted launching the challenge.

The government will now be able to press ahead with the project.

An environmentalist said the case had raised public awareness of the complex assessment process and opened an avenue for a review of the law. “The judicial review arose from some grey areas in the law that have to be looked at from a bigger perspective, given that the impact assessment law has been in operation for more than 13 years,” Edwin Lau Che-feng, a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment, said.

The council wants a meeting of experts in the field to identify areas for improvement, in particular how to increase transparency and public participation in assessments.

Lawmakers will now discuss a request from the government for funding to build the bridge and related works. Officials have put the cost of a border post, to be built on 130 hectares reclaimed from the sea, at HK$33 billion and say a link road will cost HK$16 billion.

The bridge was not the only project affected by April’s ruling in favour of Chu. Environmental impact assessment reports on a planned waste incinerator and the Sha Tin-Central rail link have been submitted to the environment chief for reconsideration.