Hong Kong: Great Views If You Can See Them

BY Michael D. Mosettig  March 15, 2013 at 12:42 PM EDT


A man gets his picture taken in front of high rise buildings shrouded in haze in Hong Kong on Aug. 3, 2012. Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images.

HONG KONG — This little chunk of China offers some of the world’s most spectacular views — when you can see them.

Increasingly, the former British colony and global financial center, lives most of the year through hazy days. Some of that is seasonal, but most is from air pollution, locally generated or from the industrial zones of neighboring Guangdong province. My hotel room in Kowloon offered marvelous vistas across the harbor to the magnetic array of skyscrapers on Hong Kong, but the haze was as predictable as the morning dawn. In reverse, Kowloon and Hong Kong are now seen more dimly from the city’s major tourist attraction, The Peak.

Hong Kong’s air quality has been going down for a decade or more. But only now could a visiting reporter expect to hear a long-time expatriate business executive discuss with equanimity his chances of developing a potentially fatal lung disease.

Hong Kong’s government has promised some measures to curb the problem, responding to the growing mobilization of environmental groups and local residents as well as warnings from international companies that they are having increasing trouble recruiting foreign executives to work here. That push is bolstered with public health statistics about the toll bad air is having on the population in deaths and hospital stays. A Hong Kong University study, reported in the Financial Times, said air pollution accounted for more than 3,000 premature deaths and 7 million doctor visits last year in a city of 7 million residents.

Environmental activists worry that the government, which under the 1997 handover from Britain to China has some measure of autonomy, will move quickly and strongly enough. But their new and unexpected ally may be China’s national government, scared into public promises of action by some of the worst air quality recorded anywhere in the world earlier this winter in Beijing and by worsening health statistics on the mainland.

Also for years, Hong Kong residents took some comfort in blaming the pollution on air blowing in from coal-fueled factories in the Pearl River Delta and across Guangdong province. But now the local government is acknowledging that half the bad air is produced right at home, from cars, trucks and buses on the city’s narrow and crowded streets and from ships traversing or idling in the harbor.

Both the environmental activists, including Friends of the Earth, and the expatriate business leaders have taken encouragement from the appointment of a prominent activist and former politician Christine Loh as undersecretary for the environment.

In an interview in her offices in a gleaming new official building in central Hong Kong, Loh said tackling air pollution involves the politics of poverty and prosperity. The government can justify a clean air campaign on public health grounds but has to decide how to spread the higher costs.

“We have the conundrum of getting the formula in place,” she said, noting that the drivers of the most noxious old cars are from the poorer part of the population and the worst trucks are owned by small business operators. The government will be paying over a billion dollars on a cash-for-clunkers program for cars and to bring diesel trucks up to international standards.

Still pending is legislation to require shipping companies, including cruise liners, to upgrade to a cleaner level of fuel while inside Hong Kong harbor.

As for the external half of Hong Kong’s pollution problem, Loh said, “we go back to the issue of prosperity versus poverty.”

While pollution in southern China does not match that in Beijing and the north, Guangdong and neighboring provinces account for 10 percent of the entire country’s GDP, its industries and power generation fueled by coal and oil and intensified by increasing car, truck and airplane traffic.

Loh said she hopes that within two or three years Hong Kong and Guangdong can pioneer a joint clean-up plan that will be a model for the rest of China.

“Everything we do has the potential of having a large national impact,” she said, expressing hope the entire Pearl River Delta region can become an emissions-controlled zone.

The test, she said, will be in the public health statistics in five years time and whether the government will be able to assert it has reduced risks.

Loh said she will have to meet that standard before even contemplating a future of blue skies over Hong Kong.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.