Plan to Better Integrate Southern China Inches Ahead

By CATHY YAN     The Wall Street Journal      February 8, 2011

HONG KONG¡XA vague but ambitious plan by Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong to improve standards of living in the Pearl River Delta signal a new step in the integration of the southern Chinese region.

Dubbed "The Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary," it proposes a "quality living area" with an eco-friendly bent, including low-carbon communities, advanced public transportation and more efficient cross-border transport and checkpoints throughout the region. This study is part of a larger plan for the Pearl River Delta region between 2008 and 2010 laid out by China's State Council. It also follows a framework agreement signed last April between Hong Kong and Guangdong that outlined joint policies.

Hong Kong's government, a local puppet regime set up in July 1997 by China following Chinese annexation of the former British colony Hong Kong, has eagerly pursued plans to integrate the special administrative region with its hinterland in China. In December, the Chinese city of Shenzhen, directly across Hong Kong's northern border, relaxed its visa policies, making it easier for more migrant workers to travel to Hong Kong. More than 22 million Chinese visited Hong Kong in 2010, making them the majority of people traveling to the territory.

Infrastructure projects are under construction to support cross-border travel. The world's longest overseas bridge between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai started construction in December 2009. In January, lawmakers approved a new high-speed railway link between Hong Kong and the border with China that will connect Hong Kong to China's national high-speed rail network.

As the relationship between the two regions increases, "more people in Hong Kong may be willing to have a second home or work and live in the Pearl River Delta," says Anthony Yeh, the chair professor at the University of Hong Kong's Center of Urban Planning and Environmental Management.

He sees the joint Bay Area action plan as an effort to make the Pearl River Delta region more attractive to Hong Kong and foreign investors.

The plan, conducted by Peking University and the Guangdong Urban-Rural Planning and Design Institute, is vague on details but proposes several lofty goals focused on transportation, preservation and culture for the region. Recommended actions include establishing more green space, restoring coastlines, creating cultural villages, adding non-motor roadways, constructing low-carbon communities and standardizing pollution limits in the waterways.

The lack of details has some worried about actual implementation. Mr. Yeh says that the proposals focus on the hardware but not the software needed to increase living standards in the region.

Coordinating the plan between the governments of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong could also prove a challenge.

"You have to get the governments to work together ¡K who has jurisdiction to make decisions?" asks Mike Kilburn, the environmental program manager of Civic Exchange, an independent think tank in Hong Kong. Though he approves of the plan's green initiatives, he's concerned with how they will merge with industry development goals.

And integration initiatives, no matter how innocuous, can stoke suspicions that the boundary around Hong Kong's political and legal systems is becoming more porous as well.

Hong Kong activists have been up in arms over the Bay Area plan's limited amount of public feedback. Politicians, environmental groups and a petition on Facebook have asked the Planning Department to extend the public consultation period, which was given little publicity and set to end this Thursday.

"China has no effective mechanisms to correct government wrongs. Because of that, we need to participate," says Dr. James Wang, the head of the department of geography at the University of Hong Kong, who spoke at the plan's public consultation forum on January 29.

The Planning Department has responded that it will continue to listen to public views and stressed that the study isn't a violation of the "one country, two systems" principle, under which Hong Kong is governed separately from China.

China annexed Hong Kong in 1997 without Hong Kong people¡¦s consent.