Her Dirty Job: Cleaning Up Hong Kong

From polluted air to sewage-laden waters, new environmental czar Sarah Liao has challenges everywhere, and she may be up to them

By Mark Clifford

Sarah Liao has one of the toughest jobs in Hong Kong. A political neophyte, she was appointed as the first head of the combined Environment, Transport, & Works Bureau as part of a wide-ranging government shakeup in July. "I wasn't prepared for all the yelling," she says of her first few months in the job. From taxi drivers to hikers, virtually everyone in Hong Kong is ready to give the 50-year-old Liao a piece of their mind on subjects ranging from bus fares to air pollution, and sewage treatment to slope-repair work.

Maybe it's just beginner's luck, but the lack of formal training doesn't seem to have hurt Liao at all. Her frank, open style has helped put her at the top of popularity rankings of senior officials. In a recent poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, her favorable rating was 60.5%, neck and neck with Chief Secretary Donald Tsang, the territory's No. 2 most-senior official, for the best result. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's rating, which rarely tops 50%, hovered at 48.5% in the same poll.

Liao, a Hong Kong native, got into the green movement in her teen years as an environmental activist. Trained as a chemist, she earned her PhD in environmental and occupational health at the University of Hong Kong in 1985. The next year, she was one of the founders of the Hong Kong Institute of Environmental Impact Assessment. Most of her professional career has been as an environmental consultant.


  Liao has a big job to do in a territory of 7 million people, where environmental issues have been little more than an afterthought. Too often, she complains, "environment [is] an empty word" to Hong Kongers. Even today, 30% of urban Hong Kong's sewage is dumped into Victoria Harbor. Still, that's a big improvement over a year ago, when 65% to 70% of the waste was dumped untreated into a harbor that counts as one of Hong Kong's most notable attractions.

Liao's mission is mighty: She's out to change attitudes toward the environment. She wants Hong Kong's people, who enjoy developed-world incomes but labor under a developing-world mentality when it comes to issues like clean air and water, to understand that the environment can be a resource. Key to this is changing the mindsets of the 20,000-plus government workers she oversees.

First up, she's trying to see that environmental concerns are built into discussion of every construction and infrastructure project. In Hong Kong, the 15,000-strong public-works department, Liao's largest unit, has long acted like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on steroids. Hillsides are bathed in cement. Hiking trails are covered with the stuff. On the idyllic, auto-free outlying island of Lamma, scenically isolated boulders are swathed in cement on the off chance that they might move on their own. So Liao is giving responsibility to the planning department for incorporating environmental issues.


  Then there's the exhaust from Hong Kong's factories, autos, and trucks. The territories and the neighboring Pearl River Delta region have agreed on a far-reaching program to reduce regional emissions dramatically by 2010, bringing them close to U.S. standards. Sulfur-dioxide emissions are to be cut 40% and nitrogen-oxide by 20%. Respirable suspended particulates and volatile organic compounds are each targeted for 55% reductions, all based on 1997 levels.

Emissions trading is one of the ways Liao wants to achieve those audacious goals. She figures that the most cost-effective way to cut sulfur dioxide is to swap rights to pollute with Guangdong. Emissions trading, popular in the U.S. and Europe, is unprecedented in Asia. China's undeveloped legal and regulatory framework makes it even tougher. Even the concept's supporters wonder if Liao isn't making a mistake by focusing so much on the issue given everything else that she has to juggle.

So far, she seems to be proceeding with her goals, however. Liao was 1 of 13 so-called "principal officers" appointed as part of a quasi-ministerial system that Chief Executive Tung introduced in July to try to make government more responsive. Some of the other officers have stumbled. Given her portfolio, it would be surprising if Liao didn't make some missteps. But she's smart enough not to promise something the government can't make good on.

Liao has a dream, too. She remembers that back in 1964, at the age of 12, she swam across Victoria Harbor. She looks forward to the day when the harbor will be clean enough to do that once again. Liao won't hazard any bets on when that will be. But if her first few months in office are any indication, she might just be able to get the Hong Kong people to go along with her on many issues.

Clifford is Hong Kong bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his China Journal column every week, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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