A former leader of the 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement in Hong Kong has launched a legal challenge to plans by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to build a naval dock right next to the central business district.
Lester Shum has applied for a judicial review at the Hong Kong High Court following a zoning decision by the city's government that would see PLA warships berthed at the heart of the city, where the army has previously played a very low-key role.
The dock will be administered by the PLA and covered by military law.
Shum said the government had earlier promised the people of Hong Kong that the planned new harbor-front area would be solely for public use.
Planning authorities approved the application for rezoning in 2014, and rezoned a 150-meter-long open area measuring some 0.3 hectares along the Central waterfront for military purposes.
Shum said his review targeted both the planning decision and the official publication of that decision in a government gazette in February, which could result in a no-go area right at the heart of the city's busiest business and recreational areas.
"If the area is a military restricted zone under Garrison Law, it will be very hard to achieve the original purpose of the Central waterfront area, which was as a public space for public recreation," Shum told RFA.
The government's security bureau has said that just four buildings in the terminal will be restricted military zones, while the remaining areas will be open to the public, subject to defense needs.
But Shum says that once the land is handed over, the government will no longer have any say in how it is managed.
Potential for conflict
Albert Lai, chairman of The Professional Commons, an independent public policy think-tank and the Hong Kong People’s Council for Sustainable Development, said Shum's legal challenge raises two important points.
"One is to win the public's trust that the government will honor the promises made to Hong Kong [ahead of the 1997 handover to China]," he said. "The second is that even if the public agrees that naval vessels can moor here, it is unnecessary to zone the land for military use most of the time."
Lai said there would be too much potential for conflict if Hong Kong residents using the area are unaware of its military nature, and that they aren't protected by the city's own laws while using it.
"Don't forget that this land is right in the middle of the waterfront recreational area, and many citizens, family members, and even children will be playing here," he told RFA. "You could mistakenly enter the restricted area, which is potentially a a criminal offense. What are the benefits of creating such a sensitive restricted area?"
Lai said the controversy echoes the row around the stationing of Chinese border police at the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminal to screen people for one-stop entry into mainland China, which has a separate legal jurisdiction and immigration regime from Hong Kong's.
The government plans to submit legislative amendments enabling the rezoning to the Legislative Council (LegCo), before formally handing over the land to the PLA.
Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee defended the need for a military dock in Central in LegCo last week, saying that military attacks can happen at any time and that the PLA therefore needs to be on the alert, citing the 1941 attack by Japanese forces on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.