Hong Kong was once a vision of China’s urban future. Now, not so much

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover. Image: Getty.

Once a vision for urban development, Hong Kong has seen unprecedented changes to cityscape following its transfer of sovereignty to China 20 years ago. Its transformation into a global financial hub promised a vital link between East and West– but that vision that now seems to be fading fast.

Since its handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been paralysed by its inability to resolve disputes on important development projects. Each year the region must roll out HK$70bn worth of public development projects, subject to approval by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Yet, frequent filibustering from political rivals has resulted in only HK$4.8bn projects being approved this year.

Adding to this problem, widespread distrust of its Beijing-backed leadership often leads to vicious political disputes between the central government and the pro-democracy opposition.  

"Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are largely because of the motherland", says Wang Zhenmin, the legal head of the China Liaison Office. Although the region relies heavily on mainland support, it has also exacerbated many existing problems.

Before the handover, Hong Kong had a reputation for the speed and efficiency with which it developed new buildings and structures. Now, however, its climbing skyscrapers seem to have come to grinding halt – a factor that can be broadly attributed to a lack of developable land.

Its popularity among mainland Chinese has resulted in almost a million migrating to the territory. That’s contributed to Hong Kong’s skyrocketing housing prices, which have risen by almost 400 per cent since its real estate flop 14 years ago.

It is for this reason that the housing policy think tank, Demographia, identifies Hong Kong as the least affordable place to live in the world. Recently, a parking space in the Western District sold for HK$5.8m (£576,000).

With its soaring rent prices, Hong Kong suffers from massive income inequality, too. The authorities have taken some steps to tackle this: last March, the minimum wage was raised to HK$34.50 an hour. But some argue that this still fails to meet rising living costs.

In many ways, Hong Kong has benefitted economically from an influx of mainland Chinese workforce. However, this has also been accompanied by a growing awareness of the importance of Mandarin, or Putonghua. Large international corporations tend to seek out Putonghua-speaking employees, leaving the local population ill-equipped to thrive in the new business environment.

Many also argue that there is a government bias towards Putonghua in schools. In 2009, a controversial decision from the Standing Committee in Language Education and Research led to a pledge to invest HK$26 million for schools to switch teaching from Cantonese to Putonghua.

Elsewhere, this demographic shift is marked by an outflux of local Hong Kong residents. The number of local residents permanently moving to Taiwan increased by over 36 per cent last year, while a recent survey showed that 42 per cent of residents wanted to leave Hong Kong.

Another pressing issue is congestion: nearly 40,000 journeys are made between the mainland and the island every day. The construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge will increase capacity to almost 220,000. But the project has since suffered a two year delay due to overspending.

In line with environmental concerns over traffic, the problem of plastic waste disposal in Hong Kong is also a growing epidemic. The region produces nearly 2,000 tonnes of it a day – constituting over 80 per cent of its drifting sea refuse. On top of this, its inability to process the material leads to frequent delays in infrastructure projects by environmentalist groups. However, stricter air quality targets have certainly led to a decrease in air pollution, along with a shift in people’s attitude towards sustainability.

So what does the future hold for Hong Kong? Its tense political climate shows no sign of abating. The tightening grip of Beijing is perhaps best marked by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the anniversary ceremony last week: “Any attempt… to use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line” – a thinly veiled reference to the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

For the time being, the region continues to benefit from world-class road and rail infrastructure. Its skyline still glitters with the lights of buildings rising above the clouds. One thing is clear, however – Hong Kong is no longer the promising cityscape once dreamed of by its inhabitants.


12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: flickr.com/photos/joshtechfission/ CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.


This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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