HK Vision 2050: Interview with Francis Neoton Cheung

Francis Neoton Cheung believes that professionals should step up to convince both the government and the public that there is a better option for Hong Kong post-2047.


Following months of big politics, it’s time to focus on the big policies and bigger ideas.

Francis Neoton Cheung is the driver behind Doctoral Exchange and is deeply committed to a bright future for Hong Kong. Alex Fok sat down to interview Francis Cheung. His vision for our city looks forward to 2050 – and beyond.

Harbour Times (HT): Why is the masterplan set for 2050?

Francis Neoton Cheung (FNC): This year is 2016. 2050 is only 34 years from now. For any strategic planning, 30 to 35 years ahead is the correct kind of time frame. Similar to the government’s 2030 plans, they started off in the early millennium. So I think it’s timely. Secondly, we have a magic year: 2047. For any long term strategic planning, we should not be handicapped by any kind of political consideration. So although 2047 is very significant, I think we should think beyond that. Say for example, we can actually straddle the boundary within China’s maritime zone when considering the location of the second airport. I have always advocated a second airport instead of a third runway for many obvious reasons. So for a really competent, economical and flexible framework for the second airport, it will probably straddle beyond the existing southern boundary of Hong Kong. So if we aim this planning framework to work towards 2050, we will resolve all these problems – assuming all these can be resolved.

HT: How big do you envision HK’s GDP and population will be in 2050?

FNC: Nobody has a crystal ball. But for any strategic planning, I think we always have to have a flexible framework in place to cater for different kinds of situation. We are not sure about what would be the new economic growth engine for Hong Kong by 2030, 2040 or beyond. In the past 170 years of history since the beginning of colonial rule, Hong Kong has been reinventing itself many times, from manufacturing to today’s financial service industry. If we don’t keep on reinventing ourselves, Hong Kong cannot sustain its economic growth and accordingly maintain social stability.

We have identified some possible growth engines. Any planning have to be based on a number of assumptions. We assume some of these engines, such as the creative industry and healthcare industry will eventuate. If those are in place, you will like need a supporting population policy in light of a foreseeable shortage in talent and labour. For instance, we all know that healthcare services in Hong Kong are very expensive for obvious reasons. So what we should do is to import doctors and nurses so as to strengthen our position in the medical field.

Secondly, it is very important for Hong Kong to sustain its development through lowering its ‘social costs’, one of which is construction cost. In the past, the land prices were very high, but now the construction costs are also very high. Even if the government is willing to lower land premiums, we still cannot provide affordable housing to the public. So I think for certain sectors, on the basis of not undermining the position of the existing construction labour force, we can appropriately import some labour for the industry. For instance, we only open the labour market up for those building affordable housing. So then you can win the support of young people, and the underprivileged.

It’s time that Hong Kong will have to plan on a horizon of 35 years. We have to progressively bring down the construction and social costs, so as to give young people more access to resources, equality and opportunities. These are the areas you can do something very realistically for the next generation. So our HK2050 Vision is not only a planning study, there are also lots of social and economic considerations underpinning it.

Having said that, we need to build Hong Kong up to a maximum population of nine to 10 million. I don’t think it is reasonable to restrict that figure to eight and a half million or so when planning. If we can expand and contain more population, it will reinforce our strengths as I always believe quality builds on quantity.

HT : What could be Hong Kong’s role in East Asia and the world in 2050?

FNC: One of Hong Kong’s competitive edges is its level of internationalisation. I don’t think Shanghai, Beijing or other mainland cities can compete with Hong Kong on this within 15 or 20 years. Now we have the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative. Superficially it’s only talking about hardware in terms of infrastructure. But if you have investments in other countries and connect all these countries with roads and sea routes, the connectivity itself is a very powerful tool. We are used to the American, European and Japanese standards, and if China is going to have most of the business partners in the world, it could set its own standards on financial transactions and claim the price-setting authority now held by America (on global interest rates). So a lot of people are seeing this ‘One Belt, One Road’ as infrastructure investments, but I do not see it that way. There is a software side and a cultural side, and Hong Kong can play a very good role in this.

HT : Physical infrastructure is fine, but it’s not enough. How do we address the people dimension?

FNC: In order to have a good planning and urban design, we need to have a robust system of social infrastructure. Hong Kong is a so-called democracy-deficient city and is unlikely to change progressively given certain historical reasons. But even with the kind of situation, we still need “Integrative Leadership”. By that I mean leaders who can integrate different interests of stakeholders in the society. They should also call upon and involve those whom I call ‘power-holders’ to be more socially responsible.

Integrative leadership will also help the government perform better civic engagement. The kind of civic engagement nowadays doesn’t really carry a lot of meaning. When government officials go for hearings, forums or so, they only do it as a matter of procedure. They never take those into account seriously. Especially in the area of urban development, they always neglect the social and personal side of the story and simply focus on economic outcomes. For instance, if you are going to resume the land in Northeast New Territories, you must think about who are the people to be displaced and make plans for them first. You need to make plans for relocating these people before you push through the development plan. The policy planners nowadays are mainly physical planners. They seldom concern themselves with social issues. Going deeper, why don’t you have a territory-wide policy to settle the displaced people and industries?

Meanwhile, the public should move away from the mentality of NIMBYism. So both the government and the public should be educated and this is part of the social infrastructure I want to advocate. But in between, we need to have a civic engagement mechanism that can better integrate the two sides, and have professionals instead of bureaucrats driving new engagement exercises. Professionals, being in their respective fields, have more credibility and are more reachable.

Professionals like me can come out and explain to the public why we need to come up with new ideas on housing policy given all the existing plans to build new flats. We have about two-thirds of land in Hong Kong that are “un-developable”, leaving no more than 12% to be developable because of various reasons. After we exhaust all these lands, there is still a big deficit in meeting the nine million population goal. How do we do it? There is only two choices: Either we open up part of our country parks or we reclaim the sea. By doing so we can show the public the choices they have and let them own the issues.

HT : Where are we going to put these millions? Can you explain the whole idea of ‘donuts communities’?

FNC: We designed the idea from scratch. So basically we propose capitalising on capacity of the Tung Chung Line stations. However, we don’t build on top of the stations like the conventional way, and instead extend the population into the sea north of current Tung Chung town in the form of donut-shaped lands. In that way, the whole community will be surrounded by water and have the same density in terms of urban planning to be fed by the transport infrastructure.

Such an arrangement has a lot of advantages. First of all, we will have vehicle-free communities and there is no need to rely on conventional car parking. In the future, people probably won’t own their own cars and will instead have common cars like what we now have for bicycles.

donut

What’s more important are the detachable floating structures, or metabolistic pads, settled around the donut communities for MNCs like Alibaba and Apple on a rotation basis to tap the talents in Hong Kong and the mainland. When these companies come, that is a very good opportunity for advanced ideas and technologies to be injected in Hong Kong instantly. We can turn these communities into an incubator of creativity for our younger generation. Young people will be offered subsidised housing, subject to certain pre-qualifications in terms of education level, working experience and contribution to the society. So when young people come together, many ideas will brew in these communities. In that way, we are not only providing public housing but also creating an innovative and dynamic hub for international corporations to tap and educate our young talents, to know our market and our aspirations.

The idea really is to turn an otherwise conventional idea into something that can meet both current and future challenges in one of those untouched ‘virgin waters’. The plan is both technically and engineeringly feasible, but for it to be realised we will need the government to amend its overlyrestrictive Protection of the Harbour Ordinance.
HT : How does your plan of a second airport fits into this plan? FNC: The third runway is not only an environmental disaster but also suboptimal in its usage. And you know that is the ultimate plan because you can’t build the fourth runway there. So why not move it to the Southern waters of Hong Kong, where there is no intersection with the air space of Zhuhai, Macau and Shenzhen? There you can have say four or even six runways, which can become a flexible framework for our next generations. Moreover, as the government is building a metropolis in
the central waters (which is plausible but again the reclamation plan is suboptimal) one set of infrastructure can serve two purposes. In my proposal, all reclaimed parts are outlined after mapping out all the constraints including navigation channels and marine ecosystem in the area. So we are arranging a metropolis in a way which is more environmentally friendly and place a second airport south to it.

fnc-pic-2

The idea really is to turn an otherwise conventional idea into something that can meet both current and future challenges in one of those untouched ‘virgin waters’. The plan is both technically and engineeringly feasible, but for it to be realised we will need the government to amend its overlyrestrictive Protection of the Harbour Ordinance.

HT : How does your plan of a second airport fits into this plan?

FNC: The third runway is not only an environmental disaster but also suboptimal in its usage. And you know that is the ultimate plan because you can’t build the fourth runway there. So why not move it to the Southern waters of Hong Kong, where there is no intersection with the air space of Zhuhai, Macau and Shenzhen? There you can have say four or even six runways, which can become a flexible framework for our next generations. Moreover, as the government is building a metropolis in the central waters (which is plausible but again the reclamation plan is suboptimal) one set of infrastructure can serve two purposes. In my proposal, all reclaimed parts are outlined after mapping out all the constraints including navigation channels and marine ecosystem in the area. So we are arranging a metropolis in a way which is more environmentally friendly and place a second airport south to it.

The issue concerns the link between Hong Kong and Lantau – what I call ‘the missing link’. Unlike the conventional planning, this is not purely a physical study where engineering efficiency comes first. And there comes the ‘Innopolis’ in North Lantau, the ‘Neopolis’ in the central waters, the ‘Aerotropolis’ in the form of a second airport, as well as a ‘Silveropolis’ near Tung Lung Chau for the elderly. We want to have a strategic planning driven by a holistic approach considering socio-economic developments and regional integration, taking into account how technological advancement will change our lifestyle in 35 years.

HT : What do you foresee as the biggest challenge to pursuing a great vision for Hong Kong?

FNC: Obviously the government’s bureaucratic system is not easy to break. But as a think tank, we try to advocate what we believe, and try to influence as much as we can. There are obstacles but it doesn’t mean that there is no way to overcome them. It needs a lot of political courage and muscle, and we should rely more on non-political actors who are more credible to the public. That’s why in the course of advocacy, we hope we can attract more professionals – particularly those smarter than me – to jump on this bandwagon. So you can say that I’m doing it the Chinese way: ‘To throw a brick expecting a jade back ( 拋磚引玉 ).’

 

ohkf_logo_horizontal-1The content of this publication is the sole research effort of Doctoral Exchange, and may not necessarily represent the views of the supporting organisation.

Alex Fok

Alex Fok

Alex Fok is a Harbour Times journalist monitoring Hong Kong’s daily political scene and diplomatic updates. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Economics, Politics and International Studies from University of Warwick and his master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a former committee member of the Warwick-based Hong Kong Public Affairs and Social Service Society (WHKPASS) and was the chief editor of the society’s magazine – PASSTIMES.
Alex Fok