The Professional Commons’s response to “Regional Co-operation Plan on Building a Quality Living Area” consultation document
- In April 2010, the Framework Agreement on Hong Kong/Guangdong Co-operation (hereafter “Framework Agreement”) was signed between the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (hereafter HKSAR Government or the Government) and the Guangdong Provincial Government, indicative of speeding up of co-operation between the two places. Earlier this year, the SAR Government has launched its public consultation on the Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary, resulting in avalanche of adverse comments, in which Hong Kong was mocked as “being planned”. To follow up, the SAR Government recently put forward another public consultation, focusing on Regional Co-operation Plan on Building a Quality Living Area (hereafter “Quality Living Area”). It is supposed that the Government should have learnt from the failing experience arising from the previous consultation and should therefore come up with substantial improvement in arrangements of the consultation process as well as the consultation document itself. Unfortunately, the Government paid no sincerity to conduct serious public consultation. Even worse, the SAR Government, in the course of the negotiation leading to various agreements between Hong Kong and Guangdong Government, seems to be at disposal of the latter’s strong and aggressive attitude.
A fait accompli suggesting no leeway for discussion
- As we can see on the surface, the current consultation is somewhat no difference from others in the past. It lasts for a reasonable length of 3 month consultation period with a document as long as 74 pages. Without a deep investigation, ordinary citizens may mistakenly consider the Government is sincere in soliciting public views. But obviously this is not the case.
- Over the past few years, a couple of agreements have been made between Hong Kong and Guangdong Government on different areas with formulation of respective work plans. It is unlikely that the SAR Government can undo its previous commitments on an easy manner. Hence, it is skeptical about possible room for serious amendments, given that many consultation items are something that have been agreed by the two governments. As illustrated below, path of development in the relationship between Hong Kong and Guangdong somewhat represents a straitjacket against our say on this matter.
- The signing of the Framework Agreement was under the witness of some state leaders1 in addition to the State Council’s approval. The SAR Government is bound to implement the agreement.
- As stressed by Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, “apart from setting clear targets and development positioning for Hong Kong/Guangdong co-operation, the Framework Agreement also outlines specific policies and measures under various areas of co-operation”2. As the agreement is so comprehensive that “targets”, “development positioning” and even “specific policies and measures” are present, it is unclear what kind of feedback the Government needs from Hong Kong people, given no specification in the consultation document.
- Having specified the scope of co-operation in planning in the thematic study on “Quality Living Area,” one of the two regional planning outlined in the Framework Agreement, it is uncertain either Hong Kong or Guangdong Government will accept any amendment on the scope of co-operation. Scope of planning concerning Quality Living Area comprises:
- Promoting regional environmental protection and ecology conservation;
- Facilitating development of low carbon economy in energy and industry as well as economical use of land resources;
- Improving land use models and regional spatial organization;
- Promoting development of green transport in the region;
- Facilitating connecting of social services in the region;
- Enhancing cultural exchange, co-operation on education and social welfare;
- Safeguarding regional food safety with a view to transforming the region into a sustainable development area.3
- To facilitate the implementation of the Framework Agreement, a regular exchange platform has been established to formulate and revise major work plans, therefore ensuring a smooth implementation. The platform started as early as in 2010. Although considerable policy items are still at the stage of planning and negotiation, general policy directions and frameworks have been fixed and some policy measures have been put in place. Without a specific account on status of various policy suggestions, it would be difficult for the general public to respond or to put forward suggestions:
- In the 2010 Work Plan for the implementation of the Framework Agreement, the section on Quality Living Area lists out a total of 15 policy measures under three aspects, including environmental protection and ecology conservation, social protection and security administration.
- As shown in the 2011 Work Plan, the section comprises an addition of two aspects including emergency management and cultural exchange. There has been a further increase on the related measures to a total of 17.
- The 2012 Work Plan has not come out yet. As far as the routine procedure is concerned, the captioned document should be released shortly. Given the completion of the consultation later this month, it would be difficult to finish summarizing and marshaling the views being collected within a short period of time. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that public views and their incorporation have been insignificant, as far as the Government is concerned, or the consultation must start much earlier.
From “China then Hong Kong is good” to “PRD then HK is good”
- The idea of building a Quality Living Area stems from “Outline of the Plan for the Reform and Development of the Pearl River Delta” (hereafter “the Outline”), an important document initiated by the Guangdong Provincial Government. As a document under endorsement of the State Council, it provides general direction and guidelines for future development of the province. Taking into consideration the “One Country Two Systems”, the subjects that engage in the planning are 9 cities (Hong Kong and Macau exclusive) within the confine of the Pearl River Delta (hereafter the PRD). The primary objective of the document is to boost the level of reform and opening-up as well as socio-economic development to a new height, while domestic development in Hong Kong is not their major concern.
- The Outline claimed itself as “now and in the future the guidance of important reform movements as well as their respective action plans and special planning projects”. The document sets the target of developing the PRD into a region of strategic importance, including “an experimental region of scientific development model”, “a pilot region for further reforms”, “an important international gateway for expanding the open-up program”, “a world-class base for advanced manufacturing and modern service industries” and “an important economic centre of the country”. Comparatively speaking, “enhancing the co-operation and integration with Hong Kong and Macao and developing the cities into the most dynamic and international cluster in the Asia-Pacific region” is just a measure to develop Guangdong into “an important international gateway for further opening-up”. Hence, co-operation between Hong Kong and Guangdong should fulfill the overall development goals of the province, in particular the PRD.
- As far as the Professional Commons is concerned, in order to ensure the sustainability of any cross-border co-operation, there should be a win-win arrangement for all parties involved. But as we can see from the consultation document, Hong Kong is not at the vantage point to be benefited directly from the introduction of Quality Living Area, while the PRD is getting direct benefit for sure. It has been clearly shown in the section “Building a Quality Living Area” in the Outline that the “promotion of co-operation on areas of education, healthcare, social security, culture, emergency management, intellectual property protection, etc.” is to “provide convenience to Hong Kong and Macao people who work and live in the region”. But whether Hong Kong and Macau people choose this region as a suitable place to work and to live has no necessary relationship with its improvement of living condition, which involves some even complicated factors. Comparatively speaking, the PRD can experience significant improvement in socio-economic condition if there is marked improvement in its living condition and provision of social services. Hong Kong people could only be benefited if they work or to live in the region, but the advantages concerned are indirect, therefore coming after the PRD.
- It is obvious that the SAR Government fails to adhere to the principle of mutual benefit and equality when negotiating with the Guangdong Provincial Government on issue of building a Quality Living Area. After the release of the Outline, the SAR Government commissioned the Greater Pearl River Delta Business Council (hereafter the Council) to conduct research on respective subject. The report consisted of a series of policy recommendations which attaches great importance to the principle of “mutual benefit.” However, the latest document on the Quality Living Area discards this crucial principle. For example, measures have been suggested by the Council to “put in place various measures to facilitate Hong Kong people to work in the region” on one hand, and to bridge the retirement plans of both Hong Kong and Guangdong as well as to establish schools for Mainland children in Hong Kong, therefore enabling Mainlanders to accommodate the style of living in the territory on the other.4 In sum, their recommendations aim at improving the conditions of both sides of the border, therefore making cross-border life easier and more convenient.
- But the policy proposals by the “Quality Living Area” consultation document largely aim at improving the living condition of the PRD region, where Hong Kong people will be attracted to move in or to work. In analogy with similar example on cross-border social welfare co-operation for easy reference, it was suggested by the document that Guangdong should formulate specific measures to deepen its reform on social welfare system and to develop new type of old-age care institutions. It also emphasized the importance of encouraging “community efforts of Hong Kong and Macao to set up social welfare organizations in the PRD to jointly resolve problems encountered by residents of Hong Kong and Macao pursuing a cross-boundary retirement life” (p. 49). On the other hand, there is no similar proposition on improvement of social services in the territories.
- The “Quality Living Area” consultation document fails to address the disparity in the level of development amongst Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong. A higher level of cross-border co-operation could not help bring a better quality of life for Hong Kong because it should have its own target in accordance with the principle of “One Country Two Systems”. However, the incumbent Administration lacks vision to improve our quality of life on one hand, and to achieve other advanced targets on the other hand, given that Hong Kong has enjoyed a relatively advanced level on socio-economic and environmental conditions. For example, the Government launched its public consultation on Hong Kong’s Climate Change Strategy and Action Agenda in end-2010, but new Air Quality Objective is yet to be announced. This not only hinders the improvement of air quality in Hong Kong, but dampens the progress of cross-border co-operation. Under such influence, there is still no sign of the release of the “Pearl River Delta Regional Air Quality Management Plan 2011-2020”, given that 2011 is going to an end. In the light of this, the existing mechanism of cross-border co-operation has a very limited contribution for the betterment and progress of Hong Kong.
Public consultation of worse quality
- One of the biggest flaws of the Quality Living Area consultation document is that it did not start with an envisioning exercise. Generally speaking, most ordinary people lack concrete knowledge on cross-border co-operation. Hence, it would be unwise for any public consultation to start with specific questions on even fine details of the development. The Secretary for Development, when defending for doubts about the alleged vagueness of the recently launched consultation on “Enhancing Land Supply Strategy－Reclamation outside Victoria Harbour and Rock Cavern Development,” indicated that any public consultation starting with some very specific details including venues, budget and project items would be criticized as “fait accompli tactic”, “covertly manipulated”, so on and so forth. In the light of this, the public engagement exercises conducted by Development Bureau recently declared at the initial stage that “problem should be recognized first, then to work out solutions”, while providing the public with further details including site selection during the stage that follows.5 Such an approach sheds light on the shortfall concerning the consultation arrangement on “Quality Living Area”. Specifically, it highlights the importance of not only the integrity of public consultation, but also the consideration of logicality of questions concerned as well as restraint of social conditions.
- The theoretic framework of Quality Living Area should take care of the view of Hong Kong people on quality of life and their improvement. However, in the recent consultation, the cross-border co-operation is confined to only five policy areas including natural environment, mode of economic development, public service and livelihood, spatial arrangement as well as transportation system. As indicated by “Hong Kong 2030 Planning Vision and Strategy Final Report,” there has been a growing concern on quality of life amongst Hong Kong people. In this connection, a short paper on “Quality of Life” (Working Paper No. 11) was drafted and attached to the Final Report. For the sake of reference, it also provides an index raised by SUSDEV21 that measures quality of life, including economy, health and hygiene, natural resources, society and social infrastructure, biodiversity, leisure and cultural vibrancy and environmental quality (Annex C).6 These ideas would be of critical significance in enriching the imagination concerning Quality Living Area in the PRD, so as to suit the needs of Hong Kong people better. Other issues of concern amongst Hong Kong people including income distribution, living condition, family relationship, educational opportunity, medical standards, fairness and justice, core value, etc are also crucial to the maintenance of life quality.
- As far as the presentation of consultation items is concerned, it looks like a routine reporting rather than a sincere public consultation. Quoting the section on the establishment of a pluralistic regional cultural system as an example, it suggests “taking forward the implementation of initiatives under the Greater Pearl River Delta Cultural Exchange and Co-operation Development Plan (2009-2013) regarding art performance and exhibition, manpower training, development of cultural information network and library resource sharing system, co-operation in the cultural heritage and museum, exchanges and co-operation as regards intangible cultural heritage, and co-operation in the cultural and creative industries, so as to create a flourishing regional cultural market” (p. 43).7 Each single one of these is big enough to become a standalone topic. In addition, given no specific content with these items over the past two years, it would be in vain of inviting views from the public over these topics of utter vagueness.
- Besides absence of phased consultation, the document fails to list out precise and answerable questions but says “we sincerely invite your invaluable comments on these co-operation proposals” (p. 74) instead. When compared with the two public consultations the Government launched recently, the flaw is so obvious for the public to see, in which no specific questions have been raised, for instance
- During the Stage 1 Public Engagement on Enhancing Land Supply Strategy – Reclamation outside Victoria Harbour and Rock Cavern Development, 4 questions have clearly been suggested as a basis for public feedback even on some general issues.
- Members of the public were also invited to comment on 3 questions raised in the consultation document “Restriction of Sale of Incandescent Light Bulbs”.
- The “Quality Living Area” consultation document is so difficult for ordinary people to read. Apart from failing to marshal different levels of question with proper priorities, it also makes no clear distinction over “development goals of Guangdong Province” and “Hong Kong/Guangdong co-operation projects”, therefore confusing the public with ambiguity concerning which of the above two poses the objective of the consultation, not to mention offering of constructive opinions.
- The idea of “Quality Living Area” is confined to some qualitative visions and a series of co-operation projects only. Except a few topics like environmental protection, there is no proper evaluation mechanism as well as quantitative indicators in place. To put the idea into practice and avoid it from being a “castle in the air”, specific and measurable indicators are necessary.
Offhand consultation with minimal sincerity
- Various signs showed that the regional co-operation on building a Quality Living Area did not involve public participation as well as consultation according to the original schedule. As indicated by Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau in its progress report concerning Guangdong/Hong Kong co-operation to Panel on Commence and Industry of the Legislative Council dated September 2010, “the regional co-operation plan on Building a Quality Living Area is being compiled for confirmation from the three governments. The three sides will hold a news briefing to announce the outcome of the Plan in the fourth quarter this year (2010)”,8 suggesting that the Government has no intention to consult the public on formal release of the plan. Outcry in the midst of members of the public triggered off by the public consultation on “Study on Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary” forced the Government to adjust its decision-making process by inserting another public consultation in relation to Quality Living Area, in order not to bear the brunt of deceiving the public. Even so, it should be indispensable of the Government to conduct the consultation with greater sincerity, rather than muddling through.
- Based on the factors that we have presented, obviously this is a consultation that fails, as far as its effect is concerned. If the Government likes to express its sincerity in soliciting public views, it should start a new round of consultation from scratch, while changing the existing way of consultation.
- “Quality Living” is an issue that involves construction of high-level visions, which could only be achieved through extensive mobilization at community level in the course of envisioning and formulation of related framework. Based on the feedback of the previous stage of consultation, a new phase of engagement should then be conducted to explore people’s views on building of a regional Quality Living Area. Such a strategic adjustment will be conducive to putting the issue of cross-border co-operation back on track with wellbeing of Hong Kong people and upgrading of their life quality as the main objective that the SAR Government should safeguard. With these, guidance of reference will be available for negotiation process between Hong Kong and Guangdong Government.
- It should be admitted that vision building is very time-consuming. In the light of this, the Government should adopt dual-track strategy to conduct public consultation on the captioned topic. Besides the envisioning exercise on “Quality Living”, it would be of equal importance to have a parallel consultation on specific issues in relation to cross-border co-operation, therefore ensuring Hong Kong people a greater participation in more detailed planning. Also, the consultation should be conducted in accordance with the designated procedures in Hong Kong. Otherwise, any consultation with nothing but formality is meaningless. With regard to propositions “convergence of the Mainland and Hong Kong”, “cross-border co-operation” and “(regional) integration”, their success hinges on general support in the territory. Public participation at a more extensive scale may somewhat involve tedious work for the Government, but it would help cultivate better understanding of the situation of the Mainland, as well as the rationale for higher level of cross-border co-operation. In the light of this, full-scale public consultation is definitely of critical importance.
- In view of the fact that Guangdong/Hong Kong co-operation has made significant progress over a period of time, it is anticipated that bilateral co-operation will be more frequent in the near future. To this end, the Government should put in place mechanism that facilitates dissemination of news and ensures easy access for the public. Such a move will be of equal importance to the progress of cross-border co-operation.
The Professional Commons (公共專業聯盟)
30 November 2011
1 Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau: Framework Agreement on Hong Kong/Guangdong Co-operation, “Document CB(1)1559/09-10(01) for Legislative Council Panel on Commerce and Industry”, para 4, April 2010.
2 Ditto, para 5c.
3 Ditto, para 12.
4 Ad Hoc Group on the Outline of the Plan for the Reform and Development of the Pearl River Delta, Greater Pearl River Delta Business Council, Study Report in Response to the Outline of the Plan for Reform and Development of the Pearl River Delta, September 2009, para 3.5.
5 “SDEV speaks on reclamation outside Victoria Harbour and rock cavern development”, Press Release, 10 November 2011. <http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201111/10/P201111100456.htm>.
6 “Quality of Life” (Working Paper No. 11), Hong Kong 2030 Planning Vision and Strategy Final Report, October 2007, <http://www.pland.gov.hk/pland_en/p_study/comp_s/hk2030/eng/wpapers/pdf/workingPaper_11.pdf>.
7 The agreement was signed by Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau Government in September 2009.
8 Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau: The 13th Plenary of the Hong Kong/Guangdong Co-operation Joint Conference, “Document CB(1)2936/09-10(01) for Legislative Council Panel on Commerce and Industry”, para 5, September 2010.