© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A course worker sprays water on the fairway at the Hong Kong Golf Club, in Hong Kong, China October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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By Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Golfers have stepped up their fight to stop the Hong Kong government from taking back land in a 100-year-old golf course for public housing, saying that the move scheduled for Sept. 1 could hurt the Chinese-ruled city’s international image.
The government is set to repossess a fifth of the 172 hectare (425 acres) Fanling golf course land in the city, which has one of the world’s most unaffordable housing markets, and use 9 hectares to build 12,000 public homes.
Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, has repeatedly said he is determined to follow statutory procedures and enforce the plan that was decided by the previous government.
But the city’s golfers are up in arms at the proposal, citing the financial hub’s international image and environmental conservation as reasons to preserve the exclusive club that hosts annual golf tournaments. They count prominent pro-government and business figures as backers of their viewpoint.
In a latest move on Friday, the Hong Kong Golf Club applied for a judicial review to challenge an environmental impact assessment that granted the basis for the authorities to go ahead with the redevelopment plan.
In June, golfers, historians and environmental experts presented their views at a public hearing on the redevelopment plan, while non-profit organizations supporting the working class protested on the streets.
Sources close to Lee said he is eager to be seen as siding with the working class rather than with the elite and has been surprised by the mounting opposition to the government’s plan.
“John Lee is riding a tiger,” said Simon Yau, professor of Urban Studies at Lingnan University of Hong Kong.
“He never expected the elite could mobilise so much lobbying effort … It shows that even though the political climate has changed, policy implementation is not without obstacles and the elite do not always cooperate.”
Speculation that the Chinese central government had given direction on the fate of the golf course was shrugged off by a source, who said it was solely up to Lee to decide.
The Development Bureau, responsible for land use planning, was persistent in the reclamation, the person added, worried that any change of stance would signal weakness and make future land reclaiming more difficult.
Lee’s office, responding to Reuters, said it does not comment on “speculative questions”. It reiterated his previous remarks that the matter should be dealt with according to statutory procedures, and that they will consider the final decisions and suggestions made by the Town Planning Board.
The Development Bureau said in its response it is obliged to take forward land supply projects as “vigorously” as it can to address the acute housing problem, adding the housing development within the Fanling golf course is one of the important sources of public housing supply within the next 10 years.
Regarding the judicial review application, the bureau said it will not affect the government taking back the 32 hectares on Sept. 1, nor affect the statutory planning procedures.
In a controversial move, however, the government in June recategorised the site as “undetermined” from “residential”, saying more time was needed to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
The rare measure drew criticism from NGOs who questioned whether the golf course would be redeveloped as planned by 2029.
In addition, the government said in the hearing it had identified land to build 360,000 public housing units in the next 10 years, 59,000 more than the estimated demand during the same period. Some believe that could be grounds to scrap the redevelopment.
NGOs say only a small number of people enjoy the golf course while many of the city’s 7.3 million people live in cramped spaces.
“If it (government) overturns its decision after so many consultations and evaluations, it’d be against its integrity and a great setback to the public housing policy,” said Sze Lai Shan, deputy director of the Society of Community Organization.
HIT TO HONG KONG BRAND?
Opponents of the plan say the location lacks the infrastructure for an influx of habitants, and increased land supply in the area in the last few years has made the redevelopment plan unnecessary.
They also say the golf course is home to wildlife and plants, including one of Asia’s last remaining groves of the critically endangered Chinese swamp cypress, and most of all, Hong Kong will lose its allure as an international financial centre.
In a latest effort, the Hong Kong Golf Club applied for the 2023 UNESCO Asia Pacific Cultural Heritage Conservation Award for the Fanling course in early July to reaffirm its historical and nature conservation value. The application is still being processed.
Hong Kong has eight 18-hole courses, compared to Singapore’s 14. Three of these courses are in the Fanling golf course located close to the border with mainland China. Opened for play in 1911, it is the oldest championship course in Asia.
Taking away 32 hectares would mean eight holes will fall under the management of the government, a change that had initially led the Saudi-backed Aramco (TADAWUL:2222) Team Series (ATS) to reconsider hosting the event in the city in October.
It confirmed on Wednesday it would go ahead as planned after the government last week agreed to temporarily lend the 32 hectares back to the golf club, although the fate of Hong Kong’s bid to host LIV Golf early next year as well as future golfing events is unclear.
Amr El Henawy, a former Egyptian Consul General who has lived in Hong Kong since 2020, said if the city fails to keep its international golf tournaments it could lose out to other Chinese and Asian cities at a time when it strives to rebuild its image after COVID and a China-imposed national security law.
“If you see the aggressiveness of the branding by other countries, Hong Kong is really under the gun. Do not hurt the brand, continue to work on the soft power,” El Henawy told Reuters.
Ronny Tong, a senior government adviser and a member of the golf club, wrote in a recent newspaper column that the redevelopment plan was a concession to “populist thinking” by the previous administration, a decision the current government does not need to follow blindly.
“The government absolutely should not allow populism and antagonism against the wealthy to spread,” Tong said.