Hong Kong delays plan to fill harbor

Unpopular idea brought threat of demonstrations


HONG KONG - Retreating in the face of public opposition for the third time in less than five weeks, the government here said yesterday that it would dredge part of the harbor in front of the downtown business district but would postpone plans to fill in a large expanse of water to build a highway.

A judge ruled Monday that the government could not only dredge the silt but begin dumping sand and gravel into the water to fill in up to 57 acres of the harbor. Two newspaper polls yesterday morning showed that two-thirds of the public opposed any landfill, with most of the rest undecided.

The Executive Council, which is the Cabinet of Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive, met in a special session yesterday and decided to delay the plan to make time to consult the public.

"The Executive Council has taken into account the fact that at the moment there is a very heated public debate on the whole question of reclamation," said Michael Suen, the secretary of housing, planning and lands.

Since before Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, this territory's leaders have been accustomed to pushing through urban development initiatives with often minimal public consultation.

But after three rallies last summer against Tung's plan for stringent internal-security laws, the government has begun reversing itself at the first hint that opponents might take to the streets, as critics of the harbor plan had threatened over the weekend.

Tung withdrew his security legislation Sept. 5. On Sept. 26, the election commission canceled a plan to reduce voting hours, a measure opposed by democracy advocates who said it would lower turnout.

Officials in mainland China have frequently gone out of their way to avoid appearing to be giving in to public pressure. But Beijing officials have been publicly warning lately of the need to preserve stability in Hong Kong, reshuffling their diplomatic office here late last month and beefing up their intelligence operations after failing to anticipate the anger last summer.

Local officials remain nervous about the possibility for further unrest. Lau Siu-kai, the influential head of the government's Central Policy Unit, told the South China Morning Post in an article published Monday that while the city seemed calm, a strong feeling of discontent lingered beneath the surface.

"Like dried wood, it is highly inflammable," he said. "Some unpredicted events could trigger large-scale conflicts. Society is full of elements of political and economic conflict."

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