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.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.