Shrinking Hong Kong Harbor Brings China and 1997 Closer

The need for more space has launched an unrivaled land-reclamation project

SEEN through the forest of construction cranes along Hong Kong island, the mainland of China is moving perceptibly closer.

On either side of the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, vast stretches of sand reach out into the water like oil slicks. To the east and west of the famous Star Ferry, the seafront is being altered beyond recognition.

Victoria Harbor is Hong Kong's glory. The scurry of sampans, ferry boats, naval vessels, and cruise ships has delighted visitors for generations. The sailing junk set against the backdrop of Victoria Peak is a local icon.

But true sailing junks disappeared from Hong Kong waters a long time ago, and now some worry that the harbor itself will follow them into extinction.

Of course, there will still be an expanse of water separating Hong Kong island from the mainland. But instead of about 5,000 feet between the two points of land, the channel will shrink to about 2,700 feet. Under those conditions, some say it would be more appropriate to call it ''Victoria River.''

Land reclamation is an old story in Hong Kong as it is in many cities with a waterfront and the need to accommodate an expanding population. Britain's colonial governors began filling in water as early as 1852, eight years after the colony was founded.

But never has so much land been reclaimed in so short a time. ''The scale and intensity is unrivaled anywhere else in the world,'' says Winston Chu, a lawyer and member of the Town Planning Council. The council has no say in harbor reclamation. It can only zone the land after it has been reclaimed.

If the current plans are completed by 2010, about five square miles of harbor will be turned into land. The northern edge of Hong Kong island is creeping farther into the inner harbor; the water next to Kai Tak Airport is being filled in for housing estates; tiny offshore islands are being absorbed; and Ocean Terminal, disembarkation point for thousands of tourists, will disappear.

The government says all these projects are needed to provide more living space, transportation facilities, and open space for the urban areas where 4 million of the territory's 6 million people live.

''Without these projects, there is little room for more amenities in the central area,'' says Bowen Leung, the secretary for planning environment and land.

Critics say there is plenty of room for expansion farther inland and that the government is destroying a priceless asset.

''You don't need a consultant or a planner. Your gut tells you that this is wrong,'' says David Chu [no relation], newly elected to the territorial legislature - known here as the Legco.

Under Hong Kong's colonial administration, however, opposition even from influential legislators counts for little.

Huge projects are conceived in the bowels of government planning agencies, signed off by senior civil servants and the governor, and then implemented.

Indeed, the territory is a paradise for engineers. Hong Kong excels in green-lighting construction projects, which elsewhere might take years to obtain the needed approvals, permits, and financing. And if the project should cut off somebody's view, plow through a Sung Dynasty burial ground, or disturb the habitat of a rare breed of mud slug, that is just too bad.

But there is a new spirit sweeping through Hong Kong that is part of its increasing democracy. For the first time in its 150-year history, people are demanding to be consulted beforehand.

''If you filled in Boston Harbor, you could expect to have public hearings. People would speak up. In Hong Kong there is none of that,'' says Christine Loh, a legislator in Legco.

''We want public hearings at every stage and consultations before half of the harbor is filled,'' she says.

The legislature is expected to consider a bill introduced by a legislator, which would curtail the government's ability to unilaterally reclaim more land from the harbor. It likely will enjoy broad support since opposition to further reclamation is one of the few things on which all factions seem to agree.

Liberals unite with tycoons, who worry that the greater availability of prime land in the central district will reduce the value of their own leaseholds purchased at high prices during the property market boom a few years ago.

China, too, is believed to quietly oppose the ambitious reclamation because it involves a massive reshaping of Hong Kong without China's approval and because it probably sees it as a way for the British to milk their colony in its last years of lucrative engineering contracts.

Beijing raised a huge outcry when Hong Kong proceeded to begin building a major new airport without consulting with it first. The Chinese became involved because the large amount of financing incurred debts stretching beyond the 1997 date when China resumes sovereignty over the territory.

Since reclamation is being paid for through current revenues, Beijing has no such hook in which to make its displeasure known, and it has been fairly quiet. But the signals are clear that there will be a reevaluation after 1997.

By then, at least half of the project will be completed or irreversible. It is, after all, a lot easier to dump dirt into the harbor than to scoop it out.

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