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March, 2012:

Don’t swallow the line that an incinerator is a necessary evil

SCMP – 23 March, 2012

On Monday, the Legislative Council panel on the environment begins listening to reports on the administration’s progress on waste management, which includes an update on its plans for an incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau. This has aroused opposition from various groups objecting to the location, which is on a site of natural beauty, and the type of technology, which they fear is expensive and will add to air pollution.

There have been calls for the use of plasma arc technology, which is cleaner and produces energy that can be sold, resulting in cheaper and more efficient waste disposal.

The Environmental Protection Department insists that plasma arc is not suitable for Hong Kong, and is only used in disposing of highly toxic waste in small quantities. Yet this flies in the face of abundant evidence elsewhere.

New York recently asked for proposals for a waste-to-energy facility that specifically excluded the kind of moving grate mass burn incinerator that the EPD wants. Plasma arc technology incinerators are either in use or being built in Shanghai, Hainan, India, Britain, the US, Mexico and Japan.

Meanwhile, Imperial College London is carrying out a survey of traditional incinerators on behalf of Britain’s Health Protection Agency after fears emerged over health risks, particularly for children. The study was commissioned after a high incidence of infant deaths among those living downwind from incinerators.

Another report shows people living in Detroit, the location of the world’s largest incinerator, are three times as likely to be hospitalised with asthma compared with the state of Michigan as a whole. The city’s asthma death rate is twice that of the state.

A study in the US shows plasma arc waste to energy projects can break even in terms of running costs when munching through 180 to 270 tonnes of municipal solid waste per day, and profitable if more waste is processed.

It seems odd that the EPD maintains the view that plasma arc can only be used for small quantities of waste while the US branch of its consultant Aecom appears to differ. “We believe that this technology is not only environmentally friendly, but ready for large-scale commercialisation,” says Aecom’s Mike Zebel in the US.

Why does Aecom sing a different tune in Hong Kong? Hopefully, Legco will get some answers out of the EPD and will not fall for its line that the incinerator is a necessary evil.

Talking rubbish

Looking through the papers on waste management submitted to the environmental panel, we came across one from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. The institute’s considered wisdom is that the government’s proposed facility should “be a demonstration and education centre for sustainable development, incorporating sustainable lifestyle experience such as organic farming, organic food restaurant, swimming pool and spa, and education centre operated as a social enterprise”. And like the proverbial rabbit in charge of the lettuce patch, it urges that “the architecture of such facility should be of the highest quality”. More fuel for the incinerator perhaps?

Hong Kong to tighten vehicle emission standards

HONG KONG, March 23 (Xinhua) — The 2012 Air Pollution Control (Vehicle Design Standards) amendment regulation was released here Friday to tighten emission standards for newly registered vehicles to European levels, according to the Hong Kong government website.

The city’s Environmental Protection Department said the regulation requires newly registered vehicles to comply with Euro V standards from June 1. Newly registered diesel vehicles of less than 3.5 tons must comply with the standards from Dec. 31.

Compared with Euro IV vehicles, Euro V heavy diesel vehicles emit 40 percent less nitrogen oxide, while light diesel vehicles emit 80 percent less respirable suspended particulates and 30 percent less nitrogen oxide. Euro V petrol or LPG vehicles emit 30 percent less nitrogen oxide.

The amendment will be tabled at the Legislative Council on March 28. If approved, it will take effect on June 1, 2012.

Human waste project trumps the Bill Gates competition | Energy Live News

Sustainable Human Intestinal Technology program (SHIT) wins funding.

Researchers are seeking donor and sampler volunteers.

Sampler volunteers would preferably be regular Newcastle Brown Ale drinkers.

Sustainable Energy

Human waste project trumps the Bill Gates competition

Posted on 19 March 2012 by Tom Gibson

A team of researchers from British Universities has been granted funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a prototype system for recovering drinkable water and harvesting hydrogen energy from human faecal waste.

The team of researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Manchester and Durham University beat more than 2,000 other proposals. They believe the technology could provide a cheap device for people in the developing world to generate clean water and energy from waste and a sustainable source of hydrogen energy that could be used to power homes in developed countries.

Bacteria in the device helps extract energy and clean water from human faecal waste. During the first stage of the project the team hope to develop a stand-alone sanitation device which could make it easier and cheaper for people in developing countries to adopt the technology where large sewage networks may not exist.

Martyn McLachlan, a research fellow from Imperial College said: “In the future we may see homes in the UK generating their own clean water, energy and fertilizer simply by doing what comes naturally to us all once or twice day. More important are the implications for developing countries, where the provision of clean drinking water is essential for supporting life and self-generated energy could be used to support economic growth.”

The researchers plan to have a prototype ready to demonstrate by 2013.

EPD seeks 23bn for incinerator and landfill extensions

Dear Legco,

Please pass to the Panel on Environmental Affairs prior to the meeting on 26 March 2012.

kind regards,

James Middleton








Tsang Legacy Pollution


Hong Kong as Dirtiest Global Financial Center Is Tsang’s Legacy

By Natasha Khan – Mar 22, 2012 12:00 AM GMT+0800

Harboring an unlicensed duck in Hong Kong can land a fine of HK$50,000 ($6,440) after the world’s first human deaths from bird flu were recorded in the city 15 years ago. That’s 50 times the penalty for driving a vehicle belching smoky fumes.

Failure to force aging buses and trucks off Hong Kong’s streets is a key cause of air pollution that results in more than 3,000 premature deaths a year, according to Civic Exchange, a think tank. In contrast, the H5N1 virus has killed 350 people worldwide since 1997, World Health Organization data show.

March 16 (Bloomberg) — Andrew Davis, associate director-general at InvestHK, and Phillip Overmyer, chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, talk about the attractiveness of Hong Kong and Singapore as financial hubs in Asia. Singapore is Asia’s most competitive city in attracting businesses, efficiency and promoting a clean environment, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report commissioned by Citigroup Inc. Hong Kong was ranked fourth overall, the report showed. Davis and Overmyer speak with Rishaad Salamat on Bloomberg Television’s “On the Move Asia.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Attachment: Best Countries for Business Ranking

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Buses move down a road in the central district of Hong Kong. Average annual roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide, an auto pollutant that inflames lungs , increased 27 percent in Hong Kong last year from 2007, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Department. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

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The Central Roadside Air Quality Monitoring Station stands in the Central District of Hong Kong. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

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The air-quality meter in the Central business district has registered an average roadside pollution level of “high” or “very high” every day bar one this year. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

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Commuters wait at a bus stop in Hong Kong. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

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Airborne particles from vehicle exhausts and combustion in power stations have the greatest impact on human health, causing 9 percent of lung cancer deaths globally, according to WHO estimates. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

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Traffic stands still in the Central district of Hong Kong. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

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A group of women stand on the waterfront with high rise buildings blanketed in a haze behind them in Hong Kong. Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

“People normally don’t realize that air pollution can cause cancer, heart and respiratory diseases,” said Carlos Dora, coordinator at the Geneva-based health agency’s Department of Public Health and Environment, who puts the global annual death toll from filthy urban air at 1.3 million. “Those are the diseases that really are the big, big plague.”

As Chief Executive Donald Tsang steps down after seven years in office, he leaves a city that boasts the world’s most valuable stock exchange, hosted three of the five biggest initial share sales in history, and is the best place on the globe for business, a new gauge by Bloomberg Rankings shows. Blotting the record is another superlative: the most polluted international financial center.

New York, London, Tokyo and Singapore all have cleaner air and more ambitiousimprovement targets, according to WHO data and the city governments’ websites. AsChina opens its economy, removing the capital controls that led investors to use Hong Kong as a proxy for Chinese growth, pollution risks undermining Tsang’s economic successes.

Singapore Bound

“I am leaving Hong Kong explicitly because of the air,” said Alex Turnbull, an Australian banker at a Wall Street firm, who plans a move to Singapore in May. “When capital controls leave, how on earth will this city stay competitive? Hong Kong is at risk of being irrelevant in the long run.”

The government will continue to strive for better air quality, “both for our citizens’ health and to attract overseas talents and enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a financial hub and tourist destination,” Tsang’s office said in an e- mailed response to questions yesterday.

Sandwiched between the Asian headquarters of JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and aTiffany & Co. (TIF) outlet, the air-quality meter in the Central business district has registered an average roadside pollution level of “high” or “very high” every day bar one this year. In 1999, 66 percent of days were at those levels. By 2010 and 2011, it was more than 90 percent.

Lung Cancer

Airborne particles from vehicle exhausts and power stations have the greatest impact on human health, linked to 9 percent of lung cancer deaths globally, WHO estimates.

Hong Kong’s average reading of particulate matter with a diameter of 10 micrometers — about 1/7th the width of a human hair — or less in 2009 was 50 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a WHO survey of 1,100 cities. While that was less than half Beijing’s, it compares with 29 in Singapore and London, 23 in Tokyo and 21 in New York. The WHOguideline is 20.

Average annual roadside levels of nitrogen dioxide, which inflames lungs, increased 27 percent in Hong Kong last year from 2007, Environmental Protection Department data show. The 2011 levels were more than triple WHO safety limits.

Hong Kong also adopted the lowest or second-lowest interim targets WHO offers. The agency has a number of objectives aimed at poorer countries just “getting onto the curve,” said Anthony Hedley, honorary professor of community medicine at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public of Health. “It’s not intended for a modern developed city like Hong Kong.”

Trends Down

The government says pollution trends are down, with a one- third drop in particulates since 1999. Nitrous oxide is 28 percent lower and sulphur dioxide has fallen 56 percent, government data show. Still, Nitrogen dioxide is up 24 percent, ozone 21 percent, and those pollutants that had dropped are either up or little changed since 2009.

The city’s observatory recorded 750 hours of reduced visibility that wasn’t caused by fog, cloud or rain in 1999; that rose to 1,399 hours last year.

“It is such a shame as Hong Kong is an incredibly beautiful place the 10 days a year when you actually realize that the tree-lined hills are dark green and not a washed out gray-green color,” said Alexander West, founder of Blue Pool Capital, a hedge fund.

Tens of thousands of finance professionals and other visitors to this week’s Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) Asian investment conference and the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, the premier tournament in the truncated form of the game, were greeted by smoggy skies this week. The March 25 final of the Rugby pageant coincides with the election of Tsang’s replacement.

Peak Lookout

At Victoria Peak yesterday, tourists seeking the iconic view across Hong Kong’s skyscrapers to the mountains over the harbor were disappointed.

“I’ve been to the Peak six times and I’ve never seen the Kowloon mountains,” said Nadia Sturzengegger, from Lucern, Switzerland, who first flew into Hong Kong in 2007 when working for Swiss International Air Lines AG. “Maybe I was just unlucky.”

At the nearby Laurence Lai Gallery, Maurice Szeto, 48, mans the shop selling photographs of Hong Kong scenes. Tourists often complain about the visibility, he said.

“Some even take photos of our photos to show the skyline to their friends back home,” he said. “I used to come up here as a teenager and you could see everything.”

Tsang repeatedly pledged to tackle the problem, including a vow in May to introduce air quality objectives before leaving office June 30. That timeline has slipped to 2014.

Economic Impact

The government has to “carefully assess the economic and social impacts” of tightening air-quality rules, Tsang said last year.

The laissez faire ideology of “big market, small government” that underpins policy in the city has enabled industries such as financial services and real estate development to flourish, generating taxes that endowed the government with a HK$595 billion pot of savings. It has also created the most unequal society in Asia, where the poorest 10 percent earned a median wage of HK$3,500 a month in the third quarter of last year, down from HK$4,400 in the comparable period of 1997, government figures show.

Forcing bus operators to modernize their fleets would mean higher fares that many already struggle to meet. The government last year allocated HK$5.17 billion to help low-income workers with travel costs.

Tourism, Infrastructure

Policies to spur economic growth and create jobs — such as more tourism and infrastructure spending — add to pollution. Tour buses ferrying some of the 28 million mainland Chinese visitors last year choke roads; the planned third runway at Chek Lap Kok would only be able to operate at 40 percent capacity to meet the proposed air-quality guidelines, a study found. The two-year delay in introducing the objectives may allow the project to go ahead using current standards.

Outside of environmental impact assessments for specific projects, the EPD has few legal powers to force change where it has no jurisdiction, such as transport.

For issues like bird flu that affect “all stakeholders — businesspersons, government officials and the general public” the government will be “highly motivated,” said Ming Sing, an associate professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “If interests are divided, such as for tackling air pollution, that’s another story.”

New York, Tokyo

In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought together 25 city agencies in 2007 to targetclimate change, green buildings, air quality and solid waste. The city legislated emissions cuts from school buses and heating oil, and reduced pollution from ferries, private trucks and construction vehicles. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

The Tokyo 2008 environmental plan seeks to “realize the cleanest air among the world’s largest cities.”

In Hong Kong, a ban on idling engines that came into effect on Dec. 15 took four years to pass from public consultation to law, and with so many exemptions that critics said it was meaningless. No drivers have been fined to date, the EPD said in an e-mailed response to questions this week.

The government also spent HK$90 million to fund a study on electronic road pricing in 1997, which was never implemented. Singapore’s ERP project, started in 1998, decreased traffic volumes up to 25 percent, according to a 2010 report sponsored by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

Bus Fleet

Hong Kong has lagged behind rivals in upgrading its bus fleet. More than half of the 5,798 buses plying franchised routes in the city at the end of last year were Euro II standard or earlier, according to a Feb. 22 statement from the EPD. London has about 1,000 Euro II buses in its fleet of about 8,500 vehicles, according to Transport for London. Singapore phased out its Euro I buses last year, leaving fewer than 600 Euro II vehicles out of more than 4,000, according to a document from Hong Kong’s legislature.

Euro II models emit 2 1/2 times as much particulate matter as Euro III standard buses, and 12 1/2 times as much as Euro V, according to Hong Kong-based Civic Exchange.

The Hong Kong government plans to retrofit buses with catalytic converters that scrub out noxious fumes, as well as trialing hybrid and electric vehicles.

To date, six buses have been fitted with the filters in a year-long test that started in September. The trial of hybrids is due to begin at the end of next year, while no funding has yet been provided to buy six electric buses, the EPD said in a Feb. 22 response to a question from a lawmaker.

Policy Delays

“These delays in policy are accountable in terms of illnesses, damage to quality of life, Hedley said. ‘‘We’ve got cohorts of children that have been exposed to the most intensive levels of exposure to very toxic air pollutants for quite a long time.’’

Meantime, construction of roads, including an expressway beneath an existing highway through Central, Causeway Bay and Wanchai, as well as a 19-mile (30-kilometer) bridge linking Zhuhai and Macau to Hong Kong, may spur demand for cars that offset their impact on current congestion. In the decade to the end of last year, the number of private cars jumped 21 percent, Transport Department data show.

‘‘The trend for many cities is to take care of the quality of urban life because they are competing for the same kinds of industries: finance, services, tourism,’’ WHO’s Dora said. ‘‘Cities are striving to be better, and those which don’t will suffer.”

NYC Recycling Law

See: recycling in nyc

UPDATE: The New York City Council leaving NYCWasteLesspassed 11 Local Laws in 2010 to update and expand the NYC Recycling Law. See Amendments for more info.

Law: NYC Administrative Code leaving NYCWasteLess(Search for Title 16: Sanitation, Chapter 3: Solid Waste Recycling) PDF version

Rules: Rules of the City of New York leaving NYCWasteLess(Search for Title 16: Department of Sanitation, Chapter 1: Collection) PDF version

Summary: The New York City Recycling Law, originally enacted in 1989 as Local Law 19, established the overarching “policy of the city to promote the recovery of materials from the New York City solid waste stream for the purpose of recycling such materials and returning them to the economy”. This Law mandates recycling in NYC by residents, agencies, institutions, and businesses, including the designation of what materials are to be considered recyclable, the recovery of those materials, tonnages of recyclable materials that must be recycled annually, and responsibilities of each relevant party. The Rules were developed by DSNY to detail the requirements, operations, implementation and enforcement of mandated recycling including residentialagency and institutional,commercialyard waste, and street events.

Amendments: The NYC Recycling Law established by Local Law 19 of 1989 has been amended several times. The eleven relevant Local Laws passed in 2010 are:

Local Law 40 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessupdates the overall recycling goals for DSNY-managed waste, and defines data calculation methodologies and reporting requirements related to tracking progress towards those goals.

Local Law 34 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessupdates DSNY’s public outreach and education requirements, residential building owner requirements, establishes fines for residential violations based on building size, and fines for impermissibly placed publicly accessible textile drop-off bins.

Local Law 35 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessallows for the designation of rigid plastic containers as recyclable if the commissioner determines that the cost is reasonable after the recycling processing facility at South Brooklyn Marine Terminal is built.

Local Law 36 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessand Local Law 41 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessrequire City Agencies and Public and Private Schools, respectively, to designate recycling or sustainability coordinators; to maintain labeled recycling containers in their buildings; and to submit waste prevention, reuse, and recycling plans, and annual implementation reports to DSNY.

Local Law 37 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessupdates the Yard Waste Composting Law to require collection from NYC Agencies and Housing Authority residential buildings, and annual reporting by composting facilities.

Local Law 38 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessestablishes Public Space Recycling requirements including the placement of recycling bins for designated materials, and city-approved textile drop-off bins.

Local Law 33 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessrequires DSNY to establish a pilot voluntary paint stewardship program.

Local Law 39 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessestablishes Hazardous Waste Collection requirements including events and drop-off sites, and annual reporting of materials collected.

Local Law 32 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessupdates the Commercial Recycling Law to require DSNY to complete a study of commercial recycling in the City.

Local Law 42 of 2010 leaving NYCWasteLessrequires the completion of a study on the feasibility of food waste composting in the City.

Previous local legislation affecting recycling:

Local Law 50 of 2007 leaving NYCWasteLessincreased the penalties for those who use a vehicle to unlawfully remove or transport recyclables intended for pickup by the DSNY or a licensed hauler; and mandated reporting requirements for those who receive DSNY refuse collection, but choose to receive private collection of recyclables.

Local Law 40 of 2006 leaving NYCWasteLessfleshes out the Yard Waste Composting Law.

Local Law 11 of 2002 leaving NYCWasteLesstemporarily suspended the recycling of glass, plastic, and beverage cartons starting July 1, 2002 through March 2004, due to budgetary constraints resulting from the September 11, 2001 tragedy. Local Law 50 of 2003 leaving NYCWasteLessreinstated the recycling of designated plastic containers and beverage cartons on July 1, 2003; temporarily implemented alternate-week recycling collection; returned glass recycling and weekly recycling collection on April 1, 2004; and temporarily suspended yard waste collection starting July 1, 2003 to be returned no later than June 30, 2004.

Local Law 59 of 1998 leaving NYCWasteLessestablished the weekly collection of designated recyclable materials to all local service delivery districts citywide by April 15, 2000.

Local Law 87 of 1993 fleshes out the Commercial Recycling Law.




Clear the Air says:

The decision to move to Mass Burn by the EPD was made in 2005.

The incumbents are seeking funding just now.

They expect the project to take 7 years.

That means the mass burn technology on startup will be 14 years older than when the mass burn decision was made in 2005.

The Shek Kwu Chau island decision means that eventually other islands, probably the south Cheung Chau proposed man made island will become a further landfill for the ash.

Government’s own figures in the EIA showed an expected 22% bottom ash per massburn day. That means the landfills will continue to be required and to expand. When we add 6% fly ash that must be treated as well as the bottom ash approx 29% of the items incinerated will remain in the form of ash per day. This immediately defeats the Govt statement that our landfills are full.

The lack of RRR in Hong Kong is diabolical and laws should be enacted to enforce the public’s recycling and collection thereof by Govt.

It is ludicrous to spend more on extending landfills when the easily assembled installation of a plasma gasification plant at each landfill site can mine the existing landfills and create space in the landfills whilst generating electricity or producing jet fuel from the syngas.

The only waste generated by the plasma system is plasmarok that can be re-used as road aggregate.

This inadequate Government is playing with our public money in a stupid manner and it needs to be stopped by the Finance Committee from doing so.

Incinerator, bigger landfills cost HK$23b

Environmentalists say they will lobby politicians to reject funding request for Shek Kwu Chau project and vow to launch further challenges

Cheung Chi-fai 
Mar 22, 2012

The government will seek HK$23 billion in June to fund construction of a waste incinerator and expansion of at least two landfills, amid strong opposition and looming legal challenges.

The Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has put a price tag of HK$14.9 billion on an incinerator with a handling capacity of 3,000 tonnes on a reclaimed site next to Shek Kwu Chau island off south Lantau, far more than the HK$5 billion spent on a similar project to burn 2,000 tonnes of wastewater sludge in Tuen Mun, approved in 2009.

The incinerator will also cost about HK$353 million a year to run. A contractor will be selected to design, build and operate the plant, for an initial period of 15 years.

Opponents are vowing to step up their lobbying of politicians in different parties to ensure the request for what they call misallocated funding will be rejected.

Some Cheung Chau residents, who live five kilometres away from the proposed plant, vowed to file a legal challenge against the project once it was approved. One resident has already filed a judicial review.

Environmental officials said the funding was crucial for long-term waste management. If approved, Hong Kong could start burning waste by 2018. This would fill the vacuum in a waste-treatment strategy that has relied on landfills as the sole disposal channel since 1997, when the last incinerator was shut down over pollution concerns.

Officials will also seek about HK$8 billion to lengthen the life of the Tseung Kwan O landfill by six more years to 2020, and the Ta Kwu Ling landfill in North District by eight to 10 years to 2026. A HK$33 million consultancy will also be carried out to review a Tuen Mun landfill expansion plan.

All three plans also face strong opposition from local residents.

The government hopes that with the incinerator, stepped up recycling efforts, and organic waste-treatment plants in planning, the amount of daily waste dumped in landfills could be cut by 2,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes by 2018.

Living Islands Movement chairwoman Louise Preston opposed the incineration scheme, and plans to lobby politicians to block the funding. She said the moving grate technology the incinerator used was outdated. Instead, she favoured plasma arc technology, which she said was cleaner and more efficient, although the environment department said it was only suited for small-scale operations and was used mainly for hazardous waste. “Technology has developed dramatically over the past year and the EPD’s information is absolutely outdated,” Preston said.

She also said siting the waste-treatment plant in Tuen Mun, an alternative site also found acceptable in the environmental-impact assessment study, would be substantially cheaper, as the site had industrial land ready for use. She believed a substantial amount of the plant’s cost was due to the need to reclaim 16 hectares of land. The reclamation work will cost HK$2.4 billion.

Friends of the Earth described the funding request as “robbery” of taxpayers’ money, since the government had failed to deliver the waste reduction targets it set out in 2005, and now proposed to spend a huge sum to fill the gaps.

Hong Kong’s Non-Election: A ‘Rotten’ System on Show

Monday, Mar. 19, 2012

Hong Kong’s Non-Election: A ‘Rotten’ System on Show

By Vanessa Ko / Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the planet’s great cities, a global financial center populated by sophisticated, can-do citizens renowned worldwide for their dynamism. In one critical area, however, Hong Kong is hamstrung: as a part of China, the city does not own its politics. While Hong Kong is in many ways China’s most open metropolis, its initiatives for greater democracy are controlled, and circumscribed, by Beijing. That, to many, hampers Hong Kong’s quest to be an international Chinese territory.

Most glaring, Hong Kong’s people are not allowed to directly elect their own chief executive (CE), the title given to the de facto mayor. Instead, voting is by a 1,200-member Election Committee composed largely of business elites who take their cue from Beijing. The selection of the winner, already vetted by Beijing, is practically preordained; the system effectively prevents a pro-democracy candidate from taking office.

(MORE: Hong Kong 1997–2007)

On March 25, the Election Committee is scheduled to choose the next CE, whose term of office is five years. But this latest iteration is unraveling: the two main candidates acceptable to Beijing are both tainted by scandal, sparking strong public criticism of the pair, the vested interests backing them, the narrow method of selection — critics call it a “small circle” ballot — and of China’s leadership for foisting it onto Hong Kong.

Of the two candidates, the skinny was that Beijing favored Henry Tang, 59, a former local cabinet member and the wealthy scion of a Shanghai-born industrialist, not least because Hong Kong’s tycoons favored Tang, one of their own. But in recent months Tang has admitted adultery, apologized for having an illegally built basement beneath his luxury home and refused to comment on the rumor that he has an illegitimate child. “For most Hong Kong people, before the scandals erupted, I think it was kind of a done deal: Henry Tang was the favorite candidate, the one anointed by Beijing,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Now Tang’s candidacy is imploding.

His chief opponent is 57-year-old C.Y. Leung, a professional surveyor who has long had close ties with the mainland. Because Leung has cast himself as the change candidate, big business is wary of him. The public, however, is fonder of Leung than Tang, whose gilded background, many locals feel, prevents him from appreciating the socioeconomic needs of regular folk. Even though the CE is not directly elected, public opinion is a critical factor, as Beijing does not wish to be seen as supporting someone against the wishes of the people. That gives Leung an edge: “If he eventually does win, somewhat against the odds, it will be because of public opinion above all,” says Richard Cullen, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong.

Yet Leung is in trouble too. The legislature is investigating him for conflict of interest in a government project, the press is on a tear about possible links to organized crime, and he has been accused of being a closet communist who would erode Hong Kong’s freedoms — all of which he has denied. The upshot is that the selection of either candidate could lead to public protests, making governing Hong Kong difficult — a prospect that worries Beijing. “Nowhere in the world combines so much civic freedom with so much political restriction as Hong Kong,” says Cullen. “Because you don’t get to vote and make the choice, issues as they come up from time to time tend to be much more actively pursued.”

(PHOTOS: Hong Kong: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t)

Those issues are major. While Hong Kong is a prosperous, efficient business hub, tying for No. 1 with the U.S. in the 2011 World Competitiveness Rankings, the city also has the widest wealth gap among developed societies. Government figures from 2010 showed 1 in 5 living below the poverty line (defined as a four-person household living on less than $800 per month), with surging housing costs (fueled by wealthy Chinese mainlanders) the greatest financial burden. Other hot-button issues include pollution and more and better schools and hospitals, areas in which the government has shown little leadership even though it has plenty of money to throw at the problems. “What Beijing doesn’t want is to see again half a million people in the street,” Cabestan says, referring to a massive 2003 protest against Article 23, a proposed antisubversion law that critics feared would limit freedom-of-speech rights. The bill was shelved indefinitely.

Beijing has promised to allow a directly elected CE in 2017. But many fret that the establishment will devise a limited nomination procedure blocking pro-democracy candidates from entering the race. “In politics, raw power only takes you so far. You have to take the people with you to some degree. And that’s the big dilemma [Beijing officials] face at the moment,” Cullen says.

It’s hard to sympathize with China’s leaders — after all they are the architects behind Hong Kong’s restricted politics. And yet, handled right, Hong Kong could serve as a testing ground for China’s own reforms. “People in mainland China are urging for political changes, so they look up to Taiwan and Hong Kong for ‘live demonstrations,'” says Robert Chung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme. “Success in Hong Kong’s democratization would also help mainland China to move forward.”

Chung has organized a mock election for the public to vote two days before the CE-selection day. Voters will be able to cast their ballots through an Internet system as well as at voting stations in what he calls a “civil referendum.” The result won’t count as anything more than another opinion survey, but the exercise offers an outlet for Hong Kong’s citizens to demonstrate support not just for a candidate (the third is a democracy activist) but also for direct elections. “One thing that’s positive to come out of the current mess is the fact that this [current] system is rotten to the core,” says pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau. “It stinks.”

MORE: Trouble Down South: Why Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese Aren’t Getting Along

PHOTOS: TIME’s Pictures of the Week

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