A PLA honor guard beside a Chinese flag at Stonecutters Bay naval base near Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. Photo: AFP
A PLA honor guard beside a Chinese flag at Stonecutters Bay naval base near Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. Photo: AFP

The Hong Kong government has come up with a range of new initiatives to tame runaway real-estate prices in the world’s least affordable housing market.

The government has proposed a “vacancy tax”, at a rate that is roughly 5% of a property’s value based on the current average rental.

City officials have also signaled their resolve to stop price surges with more clampdowns.

Yet the moves ignore a ready-to-hand, quick fix for Hong Kong’s chronic land and home shortage, because the People’s Liberation Army sits on a massive land bank of 19 military sites and camps covering more than 27.5 square kilometers – a huge amount of relatively open space in a city where vacant sites are scarce and many people live in “shoe-box” units.

But the Hong Kong government has failed again to tap these prime plots, inherited from the British Army when they pulled out in 1997, throughout the territory now owned by the 10,000-strong PLA.

PLA troops in Hong Kong perform during an open day parade at the force’s Stonecutters naval base. Photo: Xinhua
The Gun Club Hill Barracks next to Tsim Sha Tsui, as seen from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Much of the site is now vacant. Photo: Baycrest/WikiMedia
The Osborn Barracks in Kowloon Tong has little military activity. Photo: WikiMedia

Many of these camps are in areas downtown but have been virtually idle in the decades since the handover, such as the 10-hectare Gun Club Hill Barracks and the Osborn Barracks, both in bustling Kowloon, where for years there hasn’t been any significant military presence.

Questions are often raised as to exactly what kind of defense purpose these sites serve given Hong Kong is now under Chinese sovereignty, and extra troops and weaponry could be swiftly relayed from up north in the event of an emergency.

Think tanks and concerned groups have been asking for years that these sites be rezoned for housing or campus development, only to be quashed by local officials who do not have the guts to broach the matter with their overlords in Beijing.

In a reply to a Legislative Council inquiry, Hong Kong’s secretary for security said the government had no such plan as “none [of these sites] is left idle”.

The headquarters of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison at the Central Barracks. Photo: Wpcpey/WikiMedia

The fact that Hong Kong’s rank and file have to grapple with exorbitant home prices when big chunks of military land lie under-used irks even members of the city’s pro-Beijing camp.

Former lawmaker James Tien, of the Beijing-friendly Liberal Party, has also joined the call for the Chinese military to vacate its massive 2,263-hectare Castle Peak firing range, on the western flank of the New Territories, which is largely devoid of military installations and troops, for public housing.

“We are now facing a severe shortage of flats, and the task force [on land supply] has been doing a tough job in sourcing land. Why can’t we ask Beijing to liaise with the PLA on releasing part of the land to Hong Kong?” Tien told the South China Morning Post in a recent interview.

Tien said the slew of cross-boundary links soon to be inaugurated, such as the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high-speed rail line and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, could expedite the dispatch of PLA personnel from the mainland if needed. So, the army’s local deployment could be reduced to “symbolic presence” and sites released to quench land and housing needs.

A file photo shows an activist waving a colonial Hong Kong flat at the entrance to the PLA Hong Kong Garrison’s Central Barrack. Photo: Handout

Other observers said if the PLA took such an initiative it would surely be seen as a gesture of goodwill by Beijing and would help dispel antagonism towards China among the city’s young and poor.

But the PLA Hong Kong Garrison has yet to comment, while the city’s clamor and fight for fairer land use rages on.