HONG KONG, July 21 (Reuters) – Golfers have stepped up their fight to prevent the Hong Kong government from taking back land on a 100-year-old golf course for public housing, warning that the move planned for Sept. 1 could damage the Chinese-ruled city’s international image.
The government is set to repossess a fifth of the 172-hectare Fanling golf course in the city, which has one of the world’s most unaffordable housing markets, and use 9 hectares to build 12,000 public housing units.
Hong Kong’s leader, John Lee, has repeatedly said he is determined to follow legal procedures and enforce the plan decided by the previous government.
But the city’s golfers are up in arms over the proposal, citing the financial center’s international image and environmental preservation as reasons to keep the exclusive club, which hosts annual golf tournaments. They count prominent pro-government and business figures as champions of their views.
Golfers, historians and environmental experts presented their views at a public hearing on the redevelopment plan in June, while non-profit organizations that support the working class protested in the streets.
Sources close to Lee said he is keen to be seen as the side of the working class rather than the elite and has been surprised by growing opposition to the government’s plan.
“John Lee is riding a tiger,” said Simon Yau, a professor of urban studies at Lingnan University of Hong Kong.
“He never expected the elite to be able to mobilize so much lobbying effort. . . . It shows that while 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 agency responsible for land-use planning was persistent in the reclamation, the person added, worried that any change of attitude would signal weakness and make future land reclamation more difficult.
Lee’s office, responding to Reuters, said it does not comment on “speculative matters” and repeated his earlier remarks that the matter must be dealt with according to statutory procedures and that they will consider the final decisions and proposals of the city planning board.
The development agency said in its response that it is committed to continuing land supply projects as “vigorously” as possible to solve the acute housing problem, adding that the housing development within the Fanling golf course is one of the important sources of general housing supply within the next 10 years.
In a controversial move, the government in June recategorized the site as “indeterminate” from “residential,” saying more time was needed to complete an environmental impact assessment.
The rare move drew criticism from NGOs who questioned whether the golf course would be redeveloped as planned in 2029.
In addition, the government said in the consultation that it had identified land to build 360,000 public housing units in the next 10 years, 59,000 more than estimated demand over the same period. Some believe that this may be a reason to scrap the conversion.
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 quarters.
“If it (the government) reverses its decision after so many consultations and evaluations, it would be against its integrity and a big setback for public housing policy,” said Sze Lai Shan, deputy director of the Society of Community Organization.
HIT FOR HONG KONG BRAND?
Opponents of the plan say the location lacks the infrastructure for an influx of residents, and increased land supply in the area in the past 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 appeal as an international financial center.
In a recent 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 confirm 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 located at Fanling Golf Course, which is close to the border with mainland China. Opened for play in 1911, it is the oldest championship course in Asia.
Removing 32 hectares would mean eight holes will fall under government management, a change that had initially prompted the Saudi-backed Aramco Team Series (ATS) to reconsider hosting the event in the city in October.
It confirmed on Wednesday that it would go ahead as planned after the government last week agreed to temporarily loan 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 golf events, is unclear.
Amr El Henawy, a former Egyptian consul general who has lived in Hong Kong since 2020, said that if the city fails to retain its international golf tournaments, it could lose out to other Chinese and Asian cities at a time when it is striving to rebuild its image after COVID and a national security law imposed by China.
“If you see the aggressiveness of branding from other countries, Hong Kong is really under the gun. Don’t hurt the brand, keep working on the soft power,” El Henawy told Reuters.
Ronny Tong, a senior government adviser and 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 need not follow blindly.
“The Hong Kong government should absolutely not allow populism and antagonism against the wealthy to spread,” Tong said.
Reporting by Clare Jim; Additional reporting by Justin Fung; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Muralikumar Anantharaman
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