Before Easter, one of the strangest sights in Hong Kong was veteran protester and Legco member, Lee Cheuk-yan, being carried away by several policemen from an illegal dumping site, located in the New Territories, that is four storeys high and covers an area the size of two football pitches. Lee was there in support of protesters, The Land Justice League, concerned about the potential impact of the site on nearby residents.
Summoned by the site manager, the police arrested several protesters for ‘stealing’ soil, while Lee was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Two weeks earlier, the Government, finding the site to be potentially ‘unstable’ and ‘dangerous’, had ordered the landowner to shotcrete the heap. The order was ignored. No arrest of either the landowner or the dumpers of the materials has been made. However, the Government is on the case and ‘collecting lots of evidence’, according to Development Secretary, Paul Chan. There was no clarification as to why the Government had allowed the dump to get so large before issuing their timid order.
Later, on 28 March, protesters dumped around 100 bags of soil from various illegal sites outside government offices in Tamar. They were warned by the police to remove the mess or risk arrest. The protesters declined to comply and the police, wisely, omitted to arrest them.
Clearly, a minor obstruction for arriving and departing civil servants and ministers is much more important than a threat to the safety of residents in the New Territories. It is an attitude recalling the words of British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in 1938 when acquiescing to the dismemberment by Hitler of Czechoslovakia, which he described as ‘…a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’.
In a territory that boasts of its values and the rule of law, this attitude is disturbing, the more so in that it is not confined to illegal dumps in the New Territories. As is notorious, the refusal to enforce the law extends to many other areas of public policy.
Three of these are illegal structures, illegal parking and idling engines.
The issue of illegal structures made headlines in 2012 when Henry Tang, then a candidate for the post of Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Administrative Region (HKSAR), and C Y Leung, who subsequently was elected Chief Executive of the HKSAR, were both found to have illegal structures at their homes. A few months later, it became known that Development Secretary, Paul Chan, (see above), and his wife, Frieda Hui, had been directors of a company that owned illegally subdivided flats. The responsibility for policing illegal structures resides within the Buildings Department, which ultimately reports to the Development Secretary.
Since then illegal structures have disappeared from the headlines but the problem has not gone away. In July last year, a report of the Legco Public Accounts Committee revealed that reports made to the relevant department about illegal structures had gone up far faster than removals. A stroll around Hong Kong will confirm that illegal structures are still a feature of our cityscape.
Illegal parking is a pervasive problem, especially at peak hours such as lunchtime, when cars may be observed illegally parked, sometimes two- and occasionally three-deep, causing significant obstructions to other traffic. Hong Kong’s few traffic wardens (for those who have never sighted this rare species, they wear brown uniforms and hats and may occasionally be found lurking in quiet corners at a safe distance from the ominous presence of illegally parked cars) are absent from such scenes. Instead it falls to the police occasionally to perform traffic wardens’ duties.
In respect of idling engines one can only assume from available evidence that it is a case of the Government’s legal tokenism: to be seen tackling pollution, legislate to ban drivers from idling their engines when parked; carry out a ‘public education campaign’; ignore the issue thereafter.
Failing to enforce the law makes government look weak. It can be habit forming. It breeds contempt and disaffection among the public. It is a waste of time and money drafting, debating and approving legislation that will subsequently be ignored.
It is better to seek solutions to problems rather than creating token laws.
Hong Kong may be short of car parking spaces but there are options: road pricing, many more parking meters in areas where people park illegally but without causing obstruction, legalising apps like Uber, hiring more traffic wardens to impose heavier fines.
And if there are major problems disposing of construction and other waste materials, then discussions should be held with developers, contractors and other responsible bodies about solutions, generally along the lines of the polluter must pay.
So, for the future a few rules for the Government and legislators to consider:
- If you won’t enforce, don’t legislate
- If you do legislate, make sure you have the necessary resources to enforce
- Be prepared yourself to observe the laws that you and your predecessors have created.
Following these simple rules will help avoid public disaffection, demonstrations and general discontent. It will allow Lee Cheuk-yan to spend more time at home. And we will all be able to enjoy more of that social harmony so highly esteemed by Beijing.