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Hong Kong’s Lantau Tomorrow Vision: How (Not) to Respond to Criticism as a Policymaker

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Curtis Lam Asia Mar 7th 20239 mins
Hong Kong’s Lantau Tomorrow Vision: How (Not) to Respond to Criticism as a Policymaker

The Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands project – perhaps better known by its previous name, Lantau Tomorrow Vision – is a large-scale reclamation project in Hong Kong to create a metropolis to address the territory’s shortage of land supply and the ongoing housing crisis. Recently, the government found itself in trouble after a poorly handled response to a critical study conducted by Liber Research Community, a local research organisation, detailing the economic and environmental risks of the project. Reflecting on prominent local environmentalist Lam Chiu-ying’s thoughts on the mini-saga, this article identifies three deadly sins for policymaking.

The Lantau Tomorrow Vision, or as it is now known, the Kau Yi Chau Artificial Islands, is a project to “develop artificial islands near Kau Yi Chau to make available larger pieces of land” in order to create a metropolis to address Hong Kong’s shortage of land supply and the ongoing housing crisis. Ideas for this project were conceived as early as 2014 and announced in 2018. 

Over the years, the project has become a frequently revisited site of controversy as politicians and interest groups across the city have expressed doubts about its environmental and economic impacts, as well as its astronomical costs – which have also seemed to have continued to increase without much explanation.

Controversies resurfaced in late December, as the media found out that the government had already begun public consultation without informing the public. Green groups also expressed dissatisfaction, as they claimed that the meeting which the government had planned to arrange with them was framed only as a briefing – implying that the point of their attendance was only to notify them of updates on the project and not collect their views.

You might also like: Is Lantau Tomorrow Vision the Sight Hong Kong Needs?

Name-Calling and Smearing: How (Not) to Respond to Criticism as a Policymaker

On February 16, 2023, Liber Research Community (LRC), an independent research organisation in Hong Kong, published the 100-page long research report Uncertain Fates – A Study of Problems Faced by Reclamation Megaprojects Worldwide. The research draws on a selective number of case studies around the world to inform its assessment of the feasibility of the Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Overall, the message is critical: the environmental risks of going ahead with the project are too high.

Swiftly after the study was published, a response was made by the Hong Kong Government’s Development Bureau on social media. They described the LRC’s research findings as “politically-motivated”, intending to “manipulate public opinion” by “misleading” and “scaremongering” citizens into aversion towards the Vision which would thereby obstruct Hong Kong’s development. The post also expressed “confusion” about Liber Research’s allegations which suggested that environmental concerns had been sidelined throughout the planning and implementation of the project.

Since the statement was released, the Development Bureau has received numerous criticisms, including from Lam Chiu-ying, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory and well-known meteorologist and environmentalist. Writing in defence of LRC’s findings (available in Chinese only), Lam condemned the Development Bureau’s for resorting to petty tactics of name-calling and smearing, in order to discredit the concerns raised by LRC. In the end, Lam echoed LRC in urging the Development Bureau to reconsider plans for the Vision.

This squabble has once again prompted public discussion on the Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Although Lam’s statement is highly critical of the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, especially from an environmental perspective, his criticisms extend far beyond the project itself, but also toward the ways in which the government has handled unfavourable appraisals from the public, such as LRC’s research findings.

The proposed reclamation configuration of lantau tomorrow vision; Kau Yi Chau hong kong

The proposed reclamation configuration. Photo: Development Department.

The Three Deadly Sins of Policymaking

Discontent arising from disagreements between policymakers and the public are normal and essential to political life. However, drawing on the arguments made in Lam’s post, we may find that it is not the content of the policies that are causing all the discontent, but the fact that the Development Bureau exhibited three highly dislikable traits: hubris, defensiveness, and stubbornness – all at once.

These traits – or “vices” – are hardly novel concepts. However, it is useful to reconsider the reasons why they can be so “deadly”. Using Lam’s powerful remarks, they can be revisited with a more refreshing lens.

1. Hubris

From the start, Lam was very direct with his words.

“Policymakers must listen and accommodate diverse views […]. The Development Bureau should have analysed in detail the findings  […] and tried to avoid repeating the mistakes made in development projects in other parts of the world, instead of completely rejecting the suggestions [made by LRC] simply because they were not pleasing to the ear. Not only was the Development Bureau unable to demonstrate grace and holism, they appeared very agitated, angry and arrogant  […]. Such attitudes of superiority and conceit are absolutely reprehensible.”

As a matter of fact, Lam’s words apply to policymakers everywhere, regardless of sector. Very often, policymakers will downplay public misgivings simply because citizens usually do not have the relevant expertise and policymaking experience to prove credibility. As a result, the intactness of questionable policy can be preserved.

It is tempting to therefore believe that, if policymakers are trained to become more “environmentally conscious”, so will their policies. That may indeed be true. However, as an article written by Professor Madeline June Kass at the Seattle University School of Law shows, this view misses the point.

Titled Hubris and Humility in Environmental Law, Kass’s piece shows that even the supposedly most “environmentally-minded” policy sectors have had their fair share of environmental misadventures.

One of the examples Kass discusses is the well-known environmental catastrophe caused by the mismanagement of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in the US from the 1940s to the 1970s. For decades, DDT had been a crucial panacea to pest infestations, protecting populations from insect-borne diseases and crop losses. However, DDT’s impressive insecticidal power came with a plethora of side effects, including decreased reproductive capacity and increased likelihood of cancer. Despite individuals at the time warning against hasty agricultural applications of DDT, the US Government continued to ramp up DDT production because of its irreplaceable insecticidal attributes – and because the US had been making so much from exporting them globally. Although DDT was eventually banned in 1972, this decision came too late; its widespread use meant that its effects on humans and animals would persist for many years and generations.

Cases like this urge policymakers to recognise that nobody is exempt from mistakes. Yet Kass’ article does more than lament the environmental ignorance of the policymakers. She shows that it is not only ignorance but also hubris – “sheer human arrogance, conceit, and unjustified certitude” – that is preventing policymakers from setting things right when they have made a mistake, even when the opportunities present themselves. 

The problem with bad policymaking “is not that [the policymakers] erred. Humans will and should act despite the likelihood of error. The point is that [they] should have expected they might err.” 

There is always something better to strive for and worse to prepare for – and hubris prevents policymakers from anticipating and reflecting on them.

The aim here is not to commend or deny the Development Bureau’s commitment to the project. Instead, it is to point out that just because the Vision is paved with good intentions, does not mean it cannot be faulted. This is why humility is important in policymaking: it “emphasises the need for restraint and for care in light of our lack of knowledge about the environmental impacts of our actions [and] cautions us against exaggerated understandings of our ability to create and implement […] tools that will achieve our intended results.”

2. Defensiveness

Lam also called out the Development Bureau’s unwise decision to resort to name-calling: “The Development Bureau’s post did not contain a single word to prove that the facts in [LRC’s] study were wrong  […] To so casually discredit those who care about the long-term interests of Hong Kong and offer unpleasant but sincere advice simply as ‘doom merchants’, it seems that the Development Bureau is the actual one that is deserving of such criticism.”

The reason why people are losing faith in politicians and policymakers has a lot to do with the fact that so frequently politicians use personal attacks as a way to undermine the arguments put forward by their opponents. These are sometimes also known as ad hominem arguments, among which name-calling can be an example. In the end, the substance of the arguments are not properly scrutinised. Not only is time wasted; as Lam remarked, bridges are also burned.

Not everyone will agree to this view – as world-renowned political journalist and broadcaster Mehdi Hasan writes: “The fact that an ad hominem argument can be fallacious does not mean that it must be fallacious.” 

However, as Hasan himself also warns, name-calling works only when it is used correctly. In the context of environmental advocacy, Dr Hugh Finn, Lecturer at Curtin University, argues that the correct uses of ad hominems are limited to very specific conditions: When a proposed criticism is (i) legitimate, (ii) responsive, (iii) well substantiated, (iv) plausible and (v) complementary. Although Finn’s article appears to be written for the scientific research community, its conclusions are definitely relevant for any actor in the environmental sector, big or small.

So, even if LRC were indeed creating the study only for some kind of self-serving evangelism, “character assassinations” are still going to be of no use if none of LRC’s arguments have been dealt with properly. Rather than get defensive, the Development Bureau should demonstrate a receptiveness towards the unique experiences and perspectives of those they are not so familiar with or disagree with, so that they are able address their concerns more comprehensively and persuasively. The point is not to show them that they are wrong, but to demonstrate to them that they have at least given their concerns some thought.

3. Stubbornness

Lam ended his post with a message for the Secretary for Development: “[P]lease think twice. Just because a previous official has decided to implement the project, does not mean that we should blindly and recklessly continue to do so.”

Lam is alluding to what has been described in policy terminology as path dependency, “the tendency to rely on past practices, decisions, and actions for the outcome rather than current conditions”. Dependency on a particular path for policy arises when existing knowledge, discursive and infrastructure networks are already so well-established that the pursuit of alternative paths becomes less and less attractive due to high switching costs, lack of payoffs or even, fear of reversing a predecessor’s initiative when everything has been set in stone.

Yet many valuable development objectives require policymakers to transcend path dependencies to instigate change. Just because proposals do not align with what was done or emphasised in the past, does not mean they have no utility today. Just because environmental concerns have never been the central concern of past development projects or have never been considered key to their successful implementation, does not mean they will not matter today. Hence, the Development Bureau must take seriously the point that nothing, including the Lantau Vision Tomorrow, is eternally destined for completion and success, even if past practices, decisions and actions hint at that possibility. 

Recognising this does not mean the Vision’s goals and objectives will have to be abandoned; creating a sustainable working and living environment in Hong Kong is still worth pursuing. And even if the LRC’s conclusions appear to be misguided today, it does not mean they will always be wrong and irrelevant. 

There is no rule that says the Lantau Tomorrow Vision should be or be done a certain way. Its methods can indeed be reconsidered for good. Unshakeable allegiance to a so-called noble goal should not be an excuse for policymakers to unhesitatingly refuse the possibility and necessity of change.

Lantau Tomorrow Vision or Lantau Tunnel Vision?

Policymaking is probably one of the most challenging roles to take up – imagine the pressure that comes with having the fate of the city in your own hands. Yet, it is not just the pressure to succeed but also the need to anticipate, manage and respond to public concerns which makes policymaking far more challenging than it should be.

It is unlikely that the government will discontinue or suspend the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project even after a thorough examination of its merits and downsides. But this is not what is most worrying. As the government’s hubris, defensiveness and stubbornness reveal, policymakers might not know when they are going down the rabbit hole. But even if they knew, would they do anything about it?

Being aware of these three deadly sins, policymakers should always engage the public with humility, receptiveness and flexibility. Not only can they make better decisions, they can also acquire greater public support for (or at least less resistance toward) their initiatives moving forward. All policymakers are going to have their loyal critics; but not all critics are haters and not all criticisms are going to be hurled out of hate. 

The challenge for policymakers is to engage with their critics productively to turn those criticisms into constructive ideas for improvement.

Featured image: GovHK

You might also like: The Importance of Land Reclamation in Hong Kong and Its Impacts


About the Author

Curtis Lam

Curtis is a Research Analyst at Peace Generation (Hong Kong). He completed his MPhil in Knowledge, Power and Politics in Education at the University of Cambridge, where he also did his undergraduate degree in Education Policy and International Development. His research revolves around issues in education, exploring how education can promote equality, democracy, peace and climate justice in different contexts around the world.

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