The Liberal Party has joined the chorus of voices demanding a more effective government response to air pollution, questioning the administration's sincerity in tackling a crisis that the party says "transcends party lines and business interests."
"Our pollution crisis may be much more critical than we previously thought because the government is simply not taking it seriously enough," said lawmaker James Tien Pei-chun, the Liberal Party's longtime chairman, warning that failure to address the issue would lead to "dire consequences."
Tien's words, delivered Sunday as murky skies descended again over Victoria Harbor, were a rare and striking repudiation of the policy of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen from the powerful business-friendly party.
"We may be a party that represents the business sector but the issue of air pollution, as we have seen from the mounting concern across all sectors in recent months, is ... an issue that profoundly affects everyone of us," Tien said on Radio Television Hong Kong's Letter to Hong Kong program.
"I truly hope that Mr Tsang can demonstrate to us through his actions in the months ahead that his desire to tackle pollution is genuine," Tien said, describing a speech Tsang gave last week on air pollution as "a few airy words about perspective, economic success and life expectancy."
The government did not provide a response to Tien's remarks by press time, despite several inquiries.
Environmentalists have long given such warnings on air quality, but Tien is joining the fray on the back of fresh statistical and anecdotal evidence that pollution is driving away business and hurting Hong Kong's global competitiveness. On Sunday, he called pollution "a health issue, a lifestyle issue, a tourism issue, a business issue, and increasingly a political issue."
Gloria Chang Wan-ki, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Hong Kong, praised Tien's stand, calling it further evidence the government was not tackling "a very obvious problem" aggressively enough. She said she was not surprised by Tien's harsh words because "air pollution affects everyone."
Chang said: "Tien was right - this is not just an environmental problem."
Tien, in particular, took aim at Tsang's apparent nonchalance over the issue, pinpointing a speech the chief executive made last Monday in which he used Hong Kong's life expectancy numbers to claim that the territory had "the most environmentally friendly place for people, for executives, for Hong Kong people to live."
During that speech, Tsang dismissed "dramatic" media reports of a pollution-spurred exodus of business executives, urging Hong Kong "to keep the problem in perspective."
Tien saw Tsang's speech as a sign of the government's unwillingness, or inability, to grasp the issues.
"It is all very well for our chief executive to quote statistics on life expectancy in our prosperous, well-fed city but as we all know, it's only in the past 10 years that pollution levels have climbed to such alarming levels," Tien said. "Can he really be confident that, if pollution continues to worsen, he will be able to promise the same life expectancy for our children and for our grandchildren?"
Tien pointed to Merrill Lynch's recent downgrading of several Hong Kong property companies because of air quality concerns, and warnings from the head of the stock exchange that pollution was scaring investors away.
He also jabbed Tsang by quoting Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman and Hong Kong University academic Anthony Hedley's sharp reactions to Tsang's speech. Hedley, in particular, called parts of Tsang's speech last Monday "naive, misleading and fallacious."
Earlier this year, a research team led by Hedley tallied the cost of pollution at 1,600 lives a year and about US$2.6 billion (HK$20.3 billion) in lost productivity and health-care costs.
Tien also contrasted Tsang's policy with that of Civic Party legislator Alan Leong Kah-kit, who aims to challenge Tsang in next year's chief executive election.
Leong calls for new air quality standards in line with those suggested by the World Health Organization.
"We support his appeal, but Mr Tsang so far has been silent on the matter," Tien said. "We want to see the chief executive seize the initiative, to treat our pollution issue as an absolute priority and live up to his policy address promise to take `decisive measures' to improve the quality of our air."
Tien called for more stringent measures to control emissions from diesel trucks and power companies.