The Effects of Hong Kong's Rise to Power

Ethan Lyne

For thousands of years, humans have been able to utilize their geographical location alongside oceans or seas to construct more land that they use and own to grow crops and construct buildings. One of the most famous examples from history is the usage of artificial agricultural islands called chinampas on Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs to help feed the greater population of Tenochtitlan. Land reclamation is an important method of land expansion that creates new, usable land for construction and economic purposes by dumping organic materials from the bottom of the sea or nearby hills into a body of water to build land. This method is often used by geographically-limited states that border large bodies of water and have limited options to expand their borders otherwise, like Hong Kong. Hong Kong has an extensive history of land reclamation that dates back to the 1840’s when it was a part of the British Empire (Ng, Cook pg.8) This extensive history of expanding beyond their initial territory doesn’t come without a price, as the surrounding sea is greatly harmed by these development practices. Hong Kong’s expansion into an economic powerhouse due to rapid population growth was due in part to their land reclamation efforts, and as a result, the coastal and urban environment has been significantly changed by this focus of the government.

            Land reclamation efforts in Hong Kong were critical to their rise to an economic power in the world and the steady growth in population in the last eight decades or so. As a British colony in the 1840s, it was quickly apparent that the surrounding hilly topography of the coastal trade hub was not suitable for future development and that they would be forced to expand into an area of the sea called Victoria Harbor (Glaser, Haberzettl, and Walsh pg. 368). Nearly one hundred years later, land reclamation was used to expand industrial development and residential zones in the neighboring New Territories that were on the periphery of Hong Kong (Ng, Cook pg.8). Although this growth in response to population pressure was gradual, it nevertheless emphasizes the importance the British officials placed in expanding their colony into any feasible location. The later rapid industrialization and resulting population growth resulted in a massive growth of about 4,000 hectares, or 15.4 square miles, of reclaimed land from 1967 to 1994, an enormous spurt in comparison to only 1,000 hectares of reclaimed land expansion from 1887 to 1967 (Ng, Cook pg. 9). This trend in expanding Hong Kong’s usable land came under growing scrutiny in the mid-1990s as residents began to organize to prevent any further land reclamation from occurring in Victoria Harbor and other surrounding areas of the South China Sea (Society for Protection of the Harbour). By 2005, Hong Kong’s government had all but stopped their land reclamation efforts in Victoria Harbor and the nearby areas as a result of pushback from other local groups (Ibid). However, land reclamation still continues to this day in smaller projects on surrounding islands to build new centers of economic and population growth.

            Altering the terrain and geography of the Hong Kong region to better suit their economic prowess and large population also brings consequences to the local environment in a variety of ways. The process of constructing a new piece of land relied upon filling in the specific part of the sea with sand dredged up from the ocean, which in some cases can cause the release of heavy metal contaminants into the food chains and adverse effects on populations of marine organisms (Gowda pg.97). Although these effects are not seen in every land reclamation effort in the Hong Kong region, we can see that three of the five proposed land reclamation projects outside of Victoria Harbor, the main site of struggles against land reclamation in the 1990s and 2000s, faced major environmental constraints like potential impact on local species and areas of coral in 2014 (Exec Summary pgs. 14-17). With the incremental efforts to expand the land on both sides of Victoria Harbor on Hong Kong Island and the mainland, there are also worries that this high-capacity shipping harbor would be reduced to a river and lose its self-cleansing ability due to the decreased volume of water flow (Ng, Cook pg.15). Another effect of reducing the size of Victoria Harbor is that it would cause a funneling effect, creating stronger tidal currents and more choppy water that would make cargo ship travel more dangerous (Ng, Cook pg.15). The process of turning the sea into land by human intervention is fundamentally a disruptive process that has little historical precedence, and it will be near possible to avoid any negative effects on the local ecology.

            The recent focus of the Hong Kong government on land reclamation for development in response to economic expansion and population also has a detrimental effect on the urban environment and the city’s quality of life. In comparison to global cities like Sydney and Vancouver, there has been little effort to beautify and develop a well-planned waterfront along Victoria Harbor that attracts residents and tourists alike in recent decades (Ortolani). Although a well-designed waterfront is not a requirement for a city’s success and prominence, it nevertheless illustrates that Hong Kong is focused more on industrial expansion over improving quality of life. Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor has been a part of the culture of Hong Kong for generations, and it would be a great loss to the region as a whole if it is simply turned into land for shipping terminals and luxury housing.
            However, it is important to consider that Hong Kong’s population and economic expansion will continue to occur regardless of the thoughts and opinions against it. The future of Hong Kong’s expansion, according to the Hong Kong Civil Engineering and Development Department, will be a “six-pronged approach” of “resumption of rural land, redevelopment, land rezoning, reuse of ex-quarry sites, rock cavern development (RCD) and reclamation” (Land Supply Strategy). These six strategies for filling the need for more usable land for housing and economic development in Hong Kong are very diverse in hopes of avoiding direct citizen opposition to their projects. In addition, most of these methods utilize the current geography and urban environment of the region to maximize the efficiency of the land that they currently have, instead of constructing new sectors of land. With the existence of strong advocacy groups and public attention to the issues of development, Hong Kong will have to be cautious in the future with their plans for development and modernization.

            Hong Kong has seen rapid population and economic growth from their time as a British colony in the 1800s to a world economic power nowadays, and much of the success of the area is due to their land reclamation efforts that gave them greater opportunities to succeed. However, this policy of expansion has a harmful effect on the natural environment and the important Victoria Harbor, and as a result, citizen advocacy groups have successfully limited land reclamation in the last twenty years. Nevertheless, Hong Kong continues to boom economically and they have taken on a diverse approach to future development that focuses on using the land and resources immediately available, like reusing rural or industrial land for other purposes, to create a more sustainable future.



Glaser, R, P. Haberzettl, and R.P.D Walsh. “Land Reclamation in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau.” Geojournal Vol.24 No.4 August 1991.

Gowda, Krishne. “Land reclamation and its impact on environment: a case study of Victoria Harbour.” Thesis. The University of Hong Kong. 1996.;jsessionid=49FD5925DA7F3626C67D8CA829FB1C2A

Ng, Mee Kam and Alison Cook. “Reclamation: an urban development strategy under fire.” Land Use Policy Vol.14 No.1 January 1997.

Ortolani, Alex. “Turning Point for Hong Kong Harbor.” Wall Street Journal.5 July, 2005.

“Enhancing Land Supply Strategy- Reclamation outside Victoria Harbor and Rock Cavern Development.” Civil Engineering and Development Department, Government of Hong Kong.

“Executive Summary on Final Report for Reclamation.” Civil Engineering and Development Department, Government of Hong Kong. Jan. 2014.

“Our History.” Society for Protection of the Harbour.

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last updated 9/8/16