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CE's Letter to Hong Kong

    The following is the "Letter to Hong Kong - Heritage Preservation" by the Chief Executive, Mr Donald Tsang, broadcast on Radio Television Hong Kong this morning (January 28):

Fellow citizens,

     Many of you may have noticed what has amounted to a sea change in public opinion in recent months. The growing interest in what we call "collective memory" has sparked something of an awakening in our community.

     It's difficult to give a precise dictionary definition of collective memory. Perhaps it has arisen as people reflect on their cultural identity and what it means to be a citizen of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The result is a growing sense of history, rooted in locality and focused on a sense of place. Perhaps it's a feeling that has been gathering momentum since our Reunification in 1997, as people seek to identify with the place they were brought up and where they work and live.

     But it's not just harking back to bygone days. Recent heated public debates, such as the Star Ferry pier episode, suggest it is more than nostalgia for old buildings. Collective memory can also define events great and small, common to everyone and yet specific to individuals, associated with specific places. These memories can be as varied as scenes of celebration and conflict - or as individual as the recollection of a shared family outing, or the daily ferry ride to work. We all treasure these personal photograph albums in our hearts and minds. They are unique to every one of us, highlighting the difficulty of finding an answer to the heritage conservation question that satisfies everyone.

     I've mulled this over recently. Perhaps collective memory is simply a signpost that helps define who and what we are, and where we've come from. We cannot ignore this awakening, and I personally treasure this awakening. It marks something of a watershed. If our Government is to keep pace with public opinion, we must be flexible and act accordingly. I am touched by the sincerity of the emotions expressed by people who are not represented by any well-established group or political party. Through the Internet and amplified by the media, we are hearing voices that previously had no platform. I have listened and I empathise with many of their views. After all, these collective memories apply just as much to me as to them.

     So what should be the way forward? There are two challenges here at least. The first is how to incorporate these new opinions into our traditional consultative machinery. Very often, these opinions are expressed publicly and articulated via the news media after formal decisions have been made. To us this is a real test, and we need to find a new way, because we have no guidelines to deal with this kind of expression. But we believe these sincerely held views, which resonate within the community, must be acknowledged.

     Our second challenge with heritage conservation goes to the heart of what makes Hong Kong tick. In a small land area, the scope of infrastructure development is limited, and yet, over the past 30 years, we have built railways, highways, public estates, new towns and an airport. Over the same period the private sector has also carried out development projects of its own. The community recognised then that Hong Kong's construction and urban development were essential, being major economic driving forces that created a better investment environment. Our continued economic prosperity depends on new buildings being built and old ones replaced. But times have changed and people today are more attuned to heritage preservation. They no longer see urban developments as paramount, especially when the loss of heritage buildings is the price we pay for progress. Quite rightly, we have to strike a balance between development and conservation.

     That's one side of the coin. However, there's another worrying trend. At the moment, Hong Kong's development is in danger of being hampered by insufficient and slow public investment. This is the result of a serious misunderstanding, that development and conservation are mutually exclusive. There is a feeling that every construction project involves an "all or nothing" battle. This is simply not true. We cannot afford to drag our heels on this. The meteoric rise of many competing cities within the region, and especially those on the Mainland, means we must keep a firm grip on our competitive advantage. This is a government responsibility. The community must understand that investment in infrastructure is vital if Hong Kong is to remain a dynamic and thriving world city.

     Then there is the cost of preserving heritage in dollar terms. Here's the Catch 22 - we cannot afford heritage preservation if we do not preserve our economic sustainability. The two go hand in hand.

     So looking forward, here is what we intend to do. Regarding heritage consultation, we are still searching for the best solution, and we will keep an open mind. We will gather opinions from every corner of society. This is about letting the voice of the individual be heard. In fact, the Home Affairs Bureau consulted the community on heritage conservation three years ago, but I have asked them to conduct a second round of consultations. From that, views will be collected and we will decide on the way forward.

     To this end, two district-orientated public forums were held earlier this week, and three open public forums will be held before mid-February. In addition, there will be a focus group discussion for professional bodies. You may of course contribute to this debate through e-mails to the Home Affairs Bureau of the Government. I do urge members of the public to continue to speak up in these discussions.

     I can guarantee that our current heritage protection system will become more transparent. The Government has no hidden agenda in this exercise. We have already published our thoughts on heritage conservation. Three years ago, there were 78 declared monuments, including forts, buildings, rock carvings and archaeological sites. A further 496 premises have been earmarked recently as candidates for conservation. Some people may find the list too extensive, others may feel it doesn't go far enough. People have already asked questions about the loss of public revenue arising from new restrictions on development and about the possible compensation for private property being conserved. Who pays and why? These questions are relevant. Let's discuss all of these in a rational manner.

     We all enjoy projects such as Murray House in Stanley, the restored Western Market in Sheung Wan, and Kom Tong Hall, which has been transformed into the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum in Mid-Levels. Now we have the chance to demonstrate our willingness to inject a new mode of thinking into the old issue of heritage conservation. Through this latest consultation exercise, we hope to keep pace with public feeling, and to find a new system: one that allows everyone - the citizens as well as the Government - to explore a new avenue to a consensus.

Ends/Sunday, January 28, 2007
Issued at HKT 08:34


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