Hong Kong fades under China's smog

It is, by any standard, one of the world's most beautiful cities, a combination of towering green mountains and cobalt blue seas, capped by hundreds of white skyscrapers. Taken together it's a magnificent mix of Sydney, Rio, San Francisco, and New York.

But increasingly Hong Kong's acclaimed beauty is falling beneath a dense blanket of smog from southern China. Oil- and especially coal-burning factories and power plants in Hong Kong's neighbor, Guangdong Province, pump about 690,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each year, compared with Hong Kong's 80,000.

Over the past four years, Hong Kong's government has made efforts to clean up its own act, by requiring that the city's aging fleet of 17,000 diesel taxis and minibuses be upgraded with catalytic converters or replaced by cleaner-burning vehicles, powered by propane, for example.

Yet the air continues to worsen as the lion's share of the pollution drifts in from booming Guangdong, where there are no real environmental laws.

Hong Kong's government, fearful of upsetting Beijing, has made little real effort to raise the issue with Chinese authorities. Many in Hong Kong blame their Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, for not standing up for Hong Kong interests. Mr. Tung, critics say, is too cozy with the city's largest businesses, many of which own polluting factories in China.

Hong Kong's official air-pollution index topped 200 in September for the first time - a level that is termed "severe." In some cases, children and the elderly were told to stay indoors.

But protests are mounting from both environmental activists and the public. A poll by an Australian accounting firm this month found that 84 percent of 238 respondents said the government had not done enough to control pollution; 80 percent wanted listed companies to make environmental disclosures in their annual reports; and 91 percent said tax incentives should be given to firms that include environmental protection in their operations.

While the government tends to disregard public sentiment if it might hinder economic growth, Hong Kong officials are more likely to listen when big business talks. A chorus of criticism is now coming from business organizations. They say air pollution has not only obscured the jaw-dropping harbor view from executive suites, it has made recruiting of top international executives increasingly difficult.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce found 81 percent of responding members were dissatisfied with the environment, up from 68 percent in 2000. And in a recent poll of 2,515 people sponsored by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the environment had overtaken the economy as third on a list of Hong Kong residents' priorities in 2004, among a total of ten concerns.

Complaints about pollution also are coming from Hong Kong's tourism industry, a major employer which welcomed over 15 million tourists last year.

In November, the Sunday Times, a major British newspaper, wrote that "the air quality [in Hong Kong] is so poor, it poses a health risk," citing a Greenpeace survey that found air pollutants exceeded European Union limits by as much as 300 percent.

Six major Hong Kong hotels, including two famous US chains, refused to comment on the city's air pollution. For its part, Hong Kong's Tourism Board sent an e-mail referring to the "haze." It quoted a six-year-old study which determined that "air quality was not a major factor" in determining visitors' choice of Hong Kong as a destination. The Board added that in the past two years it had only received two visitor complaints about air pollution.

Next September, Disney plans to open its first park in China, a $1 billion joint venture in which the local government owns 57 percent. When asked to comment on Hong Kong's chronic gray skies, a Disney senior executive declined, adding that it was "strictly a government problem."

That may be so, but come September, when a Hong Kong dad says to his little girl, "Look honey, there's Sleeping Beauty's Castle!" There is a fair possibility that she will say, "Where, Daddy, where?"

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