Hong Kong and Shenzhen are joining forces to build a new science park at Lok Ma Chau Loop. Will it drive innovation or be an ecological disaster and yet another white elephant? Jeremy Chan finds out...
Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, Cyberport, the East Kowloon Cultural Centre, the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou Express Rail Link, Lok Ma Chau Shopping Mall, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Hong Kong’s list of expensive vanity projects and white elephants is ever increasing. However, with each new installment come fresh hopes and dreams.
The same is true of the newly announced Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park, planned to occupy Lok Ma Chau Loop near the border with Shenzhen. The two cities have agreed to settle a land ownership dispute by jointly developing the wetland at the Huanggang border crossing. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park, as it is to be called, claims to usher in improved cross-border relations as well as push scientific collaborations between the neighbours. But will reality match the rhetoric, especially since no timescale has been announced regarding the project’s completion.
Lok Ma Chau Loop occupies an area of some 87 hectares and is four times larger than the existing Hong Kong Science Park in Tai Po. Formed after a bend in the Sham Chun River was straightened to improve water flow, the site has since been untouched for the past 20 years as Hong Kong and Shenzhen have argued over who the land belongs to.
For better or worse, the two sides have reached an agreement and supporters of science have welcomed the news. Their sentiment is clear: Hong Kong needs to up its innovation game and steps must be taken to expand the city’s presence as a tech hub. Many have been quick to praise out the intriguing joint effort between Hong Kong and the Mainland, noting that whatever the political motivations, both parties teaming up to endorse such a movement is something to be commended.
“The very fact that Hong Kong and China are even working on this is amazing,” declares HKU’s dean of social sciences, John Burns. He fully supports the partnership, claiming: “This collaboration should be warmly welcomed, especially if it demonstrates effective co-operation between the two cities.” He is confident it will enable flexibility for entrepreneurs who want to acquire the benefits of Shenzhen’s startup culture while still remaining under Hong Kong’s rule of law. Burns adds that both cities could learn from each other and explore how to foster technological innovation.
The new science park, were it to reach maximum tenancy and evade white elephant status, would provide the city the space it needs to expand its research facilities while involving scientists from across the border. Burns echoes the concern of many, cautioning that Lok Ma Chau Loop must avoid becoming another Cyberport. “Cyberport turned out to be at least as much a real estate project [as science park],” he says, “and we definitely do not want that to happen in this new development.” Revealed in 1999, Cyberport was designed to become a cutting-edge location for IT firms. More than 15 years on, it has yet to reach full capacity.
Christine Luk, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in biomedical technology research, also welcomes the science park into Hong Kong, claiming that it will create jobs in hi-tech areas of the economy. “The enterprise is still very underdeveloped but biomedical and technological care are sectors that are directly relevant to people’s lives,” she comments. Luk asserts that the current department at the Hong Kong science park will greatly benefit from another additional research facility as it could serve as a conduit for the field's expansion.
This is good news according to Miles Wen, an expert in mathematical modelling at Hong Kong Science Park. Wen proclaims that Hong Kong has a lot of catching up to do in the technology sector when compared to China. He gives an example of how technology has flourished across the border: “Smartphone users are already regularly used to ordering food, calling up taxis and paying bills right on their phone – all of which still cannot be done in Hong Kong.” Wen says that Hong Kong is still playing catch up with the Mainland and that this new science park could finally be the catalyst for much-needed change.
Not everyone is thrilled by the news, however. Green groups in particular are outraged at the decision to go worth with the park. They warn of ecological hazards to come as a result of park’s installation. The World Wildlife Fund’s head of local diversity and regional wetlands, Michael Lau, stresses that the project will severely affect the Eurasian otter, a rare species that thrives in the northwestern New Territories. “If the project goes ahead, there will be a direct impact on the otters in the area,” he says, “most of their habitat will be destroyed and converted into this innovation park”.
Lok Ma Chau Loop was previously used as a dumping ground for almost 60,000 cubic metres of contaminated sludge. Now home to numerous birds and mammals, as well as Eurasian otters, conservationists are urging the government to comply with set standards like the WWF’s or to simply abandon the idea of the new tech park.
Problems exist not just on the ground, too. The construction of tall buildings will completely obstruct the flight lines of migratory water birds such as egrets, herons and the endangered black-faced spoonbill. Lau is urging the government to guarantee that infrastructure at the park does not exceed three storeys high in order to not block the flight paths. “If the project goes ahead,” he says, “the majority of the site will be covered by buildings which will create a barrier, making it difficult for the birds to navigate between Mai Po Nature Reserve and Lok Ma Chau Loop.”
Four kilometres southwest of Lok Ma Chau Loop, Mai Po Nature Reserve is one of Hong Kong’s most treasured nature reserves. “According to environmental impact assessment reports, the engineering work needed to strengthen the banks at the Sham Chun River meander will destroy the ecological value of the site,” reveals Roy Ng, Conservancy Association assistant campaign manager. Ng insists that construction of the proposed park will forever damage and alter the ecological integrity of Lok Ma Chau Loop. “This is a very important ecological corridor,” he states.
Upset with the current plans, Ng is lobbying the government to construct the new park at an alternative border crossing at Heung Yuen Wai, further east. Ng understands the government’s desire to push ahead with the scheme but insists that the plot at Heung Yuen Wai will have a much smaller impact on the surrounding environment, though it will be restricted to a smaller space.
Ultimately, many want the new technology park to be a success and they also want the government to ensure that environmental concerns are not ignored for the sake of a new enterprise. While developing a hi-tech future for Hong Kong is important, conservationists should not be sidelined. “They can still continue to develop that park in other areas,” Ng reiterates, “without sacrificing the environment.”