Thousands protest expensive Hong Kong rail project

Thousands ringed Hong Kong's legislature as frustration mounted over government attempts to bulldoze through a high-speed railway.

Thousands protest expensive Hong Kong rail project

Thousands ringed Hong Kong's legislature on Friday as frustration mounted over government attempts to bulldoze through a high-speed railway, an issue that has also catalysed a fresh push for full democracy.

The HK$66.9 billion ($8.6 billion) railway linking Hong Kong to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has been championed by officials as a vital infrastructure project that could bring upwards of HK$87 billion in economic benefits over 50 years by vastly cutting travel times to Chinese cities.

But public bitterness has grown over the planned razing of a village and rural swathes to make way for the project, along with growing cost estimates that now make the rail link one of the most expensive in the world on a per kilometer basis.

Outside the city's legislature, Hong Kongers ranging from grizzled activists and villagers facing eviction to young protesters feverishly posting updates on Twitter and Facebook, appealed to lawmakers inside not to approve funding for the rail link that will augment a slower existing one to Guangzhou.

Many of the estimated 10,000 protesters cheered when the marathon legislative session failed to result in a decision late into the night, with a vote postponed until next week.

"The government has never asked us what we want," said Chu Hoi-dick, a young activist who opposed the demolition of Hong Kong's historic Star Ferry clock tower several years ago.

The railway has also become a lightning rod for the venting of broader discontent at Hong Kong's lack of democracy and government accountability for major policies.

The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, has grappled with Beijing's Communist Party for more than a decade over a roadmap towards universal suffrage, as guaranteed in the city's mini-constitution.

Pro-democracy politicians are poised to resign en masse from the city's legislature this month in frustration at what they say is too slow a pace in political reforms.

"Hong Kong's role is changing in that no longer are we a so-called economic city. Hong Kong is fully aware that to stand up for our rights is the only way to safeguard our future," said Albert Lai, chairman of the Professional Commons.

The Commons is an influential coalition of professionals, whose detailed proposal for a cheaper alternative rail link with fewer disruptions has so far fallen on deaf government ears.

Earlier this week, Leung Chun-ying, a senior member of Hong Kong's cabinet, warned of growing public discontent, fuelled in part from a yawning income gap and high property prices.

"Such a politically alienated majority may perhaps at present have little capacity to disrupt economic life or political decision-making but within 10 years ... this will no longer be so," he wrote in an article in the Hong Kong Journal.

An average of 99,000 passengers are expected to travel daily on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong link after it opens in 2016, which will join Hong Kong to China's high-speed rail network.

Officials have warned of great costs of further delays, while a fresh wave of Chinese visitors are expected to bring tourism, retail, logistics and other economic benefits.

Construction worker unions have also marched in support of the rail link, saying it will bring thousands of new jobs.

Reuters
Last Mod: 09 Ocak 2010, 12:39
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