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April 25th, 2011:

Business First

South China Morning Post — 25th April 2011

Eva Cheng probably doesn’t even realise it, but our transport and housing secretary has given us a valuable peek into how this government sees its priorities. When a court ruled against the government last week on a crucial environmental issue, it said the government had done too little to determine how much the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge would worsen our air quality. Cheng’s reaction to the ruling confirmed as fact a suspicion long held by many. Let me repeat her words: “I think it’s regrettable that this course of action has been taken.”

Those few words tell us a lot about how the government thinks. They scream out that the government cares more about building a bridge than about the quality of air you and your children breathe. Why else would Cheng find it regrettable that an elderly and ailing woman challenged in court the adequacy of the government’s study on what environmental damage the bridge would cause?

Chu Yee-wah, a 65-year-old retiree who lives in Tung Chung, is worried the bridge, with its heavy traffic, would worsen her diabetes and heart condition. But Cheng showed no sympathy for the woman, only disappointment that the bridge could be delayed, adding to the construction cost. Her rebuke of Chu’s legal action was the government’s way of telling us it sees the bridge as more important than the damage it could cause to our health.

It is instructive to note that it was the transport minister who reacted to the court ruling, not the environment minister. That again tells us where this government’s priorities lie. Cheng’s job is to make sure Hong Kong’s transport infrastructure functions smoothly, not only for residents but for business. Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah’s job is to safeguard Hong Kong’s environment. But he was mute when the court found the government had not done enough to safeguard the environment from the bridge. His role became subordinate to Cheng, who was not pleased that the lawsuit had hurt an important part of our transport infrastructure to facilitate trade with the mainland.

Shouldn’t Yau be defending Chu? All Chu did, after all, was to allege the government had done an incomplete job in assessing the environmental impact of the bridge. The court agreed. It faulted the government for studying only what the air quality would be like with the bridge in place. It said the government should also have studied what the air quality would be like without it. Surely, this makes sense.

But the government argues its duty is only to see if air quality is still within the standard it has set with the bridge in place. That is not safeguarding air quality. It is allowing air quality to worsen to the government’s much criticised and outdated standard.

Instead of mulling over an appeal, which the government is doing, Yau should thank Chu for helping him do his job. Her legal challenge exposed a serious flaw in how the government decides if a development project damages the environment. It also shows that the government’s obsession with aiding the business sector – the bridge further opens the Pearl River Delta region – comes at the expense of the public’s health.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A government that claims to care about the environment should feel obliged to compare air quality with and without the bridge before rushing to conclude the project can proceed. That is the honest and right thing to do. It doesn’t mean we must give up the bridge even if an honest investigation shows that having it would make air quality far worse than now. It simply means we must find ways to have the bridge without significantly worsening air quality. There is no reason why we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

But that requires a sea change in the way our bureaucrats think. If they don’t believe people should come before things that aid business, they can at least treat the two as equally important. But do you see anything that says our bureaucrats put people first? Do you see parks instead of shopping malls, harbourfront walks instead of flyovers, historical buildings instead of skyscrapers?