A flurry of long hair. A man in a puffy jacket, jeans, and trainers. He strolled up to our little band of activists, seized the mic, and addressed us, the students, directly.
“You young people encourage me to confront the government”, he said in almost perfect English. It was clear he meant every word, and it sent a wave of goosebumps through our group. Only later would we realise we had been commended personally by Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair”, the Legislative Council politician. He wasn’t the only one – Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, vice-chairman of the Labour Party, had also said he “admired our eloquence” and the way we presented our case.
Who were “we”? A group of ESF students called ESF Student Environmental Forum, who meet to discuss environmental issues and best practices across ESF schools. One agenda we felt strongly about was opposing the government’s planned East Lantau Metropolis (ELM), a mega project that is slated to cost HK$400 billion and threatens biodiversity in the region. We raised awareness of this issue across ESF schools. Then, thanks to Ross Burrough – the environmental coordinator for ESF schools – and Jenny Quinton, an activist for environmental education foundation Ark Eden, we were invited to watch the debate on the issue at the Legislative Council on Friday.
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We united outside the Legislative Council to oppose the ELM, which is scheduled for completion in the 2040s. Building the East Lantau Metropolis would involve land reclamation as well as construction projects that would create 29km of tunnels linking the Metropolis with other areas of Hong Kong.
We spoke to the press along with political players such as Long Hair, Cheung, and Paul Zimmerman, member of the Southern District Council and CEO of Designing Hong Kong. Also among us were activists from various groups, such as Ark Eden, and the Save Lantau Alliance. We explained to the press why we opposed the ELM. We spoke mostly about the environmental impact. We felt it could cause a drastic reduction in biodiversity and the potential decimation of a 250-million-year old ecosystem. All of us were against seeing Lantau, Hong Kong’s “green lung”, reshaped in this way.
Moments later, we were whisked through metal detectors and security. Before we knew it, we were in a cavernous chamber spanning two floors; one below where the politicians would pontificate and debate, and one above for citizens – us in this case – to witness the future being shaped.
Before the debate even started, we felt empowered. One of our own – an activist from Ark Eden – was down in the chamber, inspiring us with the feeling that we could do that, too.
The main takeaway from the whole experience was the sense of empowerment. We served as an example to others and to our future selves of what is possible. The fact that we had been able to make the government and the press address our concerns was evidence enough of that.
I don’t know what I expected. I know that I didn’t expect to understand what was being said – despite the live translation available to us, I was worried that the debate would be full of words and phrases I didn’t understand. Most of all, I expected apathy, perhaps as a result of the way politicians are constantly portrayed as villains in the media.
What we got, however, was a show of people who, above all, cared. So much so that their speeches were full of passion and compassion, barely able to confine themselves to the allocated three minutes. They dealt with many of the same topics we had, and in much the same way, making the debates easy to follow. What they had and we didn’t was the weight of their constituents resting on their shoulders, making their arguments fervent and urgent. It was clear that they cared, which was reassuring and inspiring.
I am convinced that my peers and I came away with a new mindset and appreciation for how change happens, and what’s possible – even as students – in today’s world.