Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive Donald Tsang professed interest in nature, yet was anti-environment in practice.
Goodbye Donald Tsang: You Did the Wrong Job
In April 2006, almost a year since he became Hong Kong Chief Executive, Donald Tsang spoke of how being a birdwatcher helps bring you closer to nature and helps ease the mind from the strains and stresses of modern life. He said birdwatching shows that nature acts as a good balance to human life.
These are fine words, which should resonate with a nature lover and birdwatcher like me. And yet, given Donald Tsang’s leadership of Hong Kong, these words rang hollow – for instead of striving to balance nature and human life, Mr Tsang helped propel Hong Kong towards ever more development, as if trying to create a land where concrete is king. Indeed, I often wonder if Donald Tsang might be the most environmentally destructive birdwatcher in history.
Mr Tsang may have derived personal satisfaction from birds, and the carp kept in a pond he built with HK$300,000 of public money, but he made it clear from the start that he wasn’t going to let nature get in the way of developing Hong Kong through big projects. “I will insist on promoting economic development as our primary goal,” he announced after first being elected as Chief Executive, listing ten major infrastructure projects.
Anyone concerned about Hong Kong’s environment or cultural heritage might have been alarmed by such plans. Yet Mr Tsang also expressed even scarier ideas. “I’m a simple minded man and I will just do accordingly,” he told the Financial Times, in an interview in which he also suggested Hong Kong could accommodate 10 million people, and remembered his best job in public service as being reclaiming seas, pulling down mountains and building Sha Tin new town. “We got freedom. I did not have environmentalists in my hair in those days,” he remarked, laughing.
Of course, Donald Tsang became leader of a city with abundant infrastructure, and with the problems that accompany it, including air pollution. Yet this did not seem to bother him too much; at an environmental forum, he said Hong Kong’s air is “not pristine pure as in some Scandinavian cities or in the North and South Poles,” and cited Hongkongers’ longevity as if it meant the air is healthy here – ignoring the fact that the people dying in old age had breathed clean air as children.
In July 2006, Donald Tsang did launch the grand sounding Action Blue Sky Campaign, with the slogan 全城投入 為藍天打氣” (Chinese: All of the city participate to fight for a blue sky). But by no means all the city fought for clean air – perhaps least of all Mr Tsang – and within months the campaign faded, and would be better named Inaction Blue Sky.
Hong Kong’s Air Quality Objectives were established during the Stone Age – well, actually during 1987– and in 2007 the Environmental Protection Department began a review process, to develop AQOs to better protect public health. Last year, Mr Tsang promised to announce new AQOs within the year; these would be passed to the Legislative Council. Yet with tighter restrictions on pollution threatening infrastructure projects, and never mind 3200 Hongkongers who die prematurely each year as a result of breathing filthy air, the AQOs are yet to be introduced. “Blue Sky” is hard to see in Hong Kong, and in March this year Bloomberg ran a story titled “Hong Kong as Dirtiest Financial Centre is Tsang’s Legacy”.
Under Donald Tsang, even the Environmental Protection Department began working towards infrastructure construction, with a waste strategy that became focused on building one of the world’s largest waste incinerators on an artificial island beside Shek Kwu Chau. Others, too, seemed happy to adopt the never mind nature, let’s see how much we can build philosophy: ranging from rural businessmen, to government planners suggesting vast new reclamations.
And yet, I believe this philosophy has declining overall support in Hong Kong, as more people consider they and their children should have a right to breathe without harming their health, as well as enjoy our remaining natural areas, and live in a place that safeguards its heritage. There are more campaigns and campaigners striving to reign in development, and focus more on conservation.
Perhaps Donald Tsang will be seen as the last of his kind, the product of a civil service in a city founded on reclaimed – and even borrowed – land. This was a place where you could build infrastructure that was soon worthwhile. Yet things are different now – note the few vehicles as you drive over the long and costly Stonecutters Bridge, for instance. Now, perhaps, it is time to reconsider what “development” means for Hong Kong, to strive for actual balance with nature, and aim for a long term future.
And, of course, it is time to say Goodbye, Donald Tsang. You did get a job done; yet sadly, it was the wrong job.
Written for Ming Pao Weekly; appeared (in Chinese) on 21 July 2012