BEIJING - Hong Kong has taken a key step towards approving the construction of a Chinese military port along its waterfront, China's state media reported Saturday, despite fierce public opposition to the move.
In a unanimous decision, Hong Kong's Town Planning Board Friday gave the green light for the construction of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) military port in the city's Central district, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) said.
The proposal to develop the port - marked for an area of prime harbourfront property covering 2,970 square metres - must now be approved by Hong Kong's top policy-making body before it becomes final, CCTV reported.
A spokesman for the planning board told the broadcaster that the port, which would be the PLA's first in Hong Kong, had been in planning since 1994, three years before the former British colony was handed back to China.
But the proposal has drawn sharp criticism from some of Hong Kong's residents who argue the public will lose access to valuable open space along Victoria Harbour if the land is converted for military use.
According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, more than 19,000 residents have submitted public comments to the board since last February, when the government submitted its application for the re-zoning of the land.
Only 20 of those comments were in favour of the proposal, it reported.
The newspaper also cited legal experts who said that it remains unclear as to what extent the public will be able to use the land when it is not in use by the PLA.
Tensions between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong have flared in recent months, with some residents of the semi-autonomous territory staging protests to vent their frustration over livelihood issues and the pace of political reforms.
Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan, who leads a campaign against the PLA port, accused Hong Kong's government, whose current chief executive is appointed by a pro-Beijing committee, of failing to protect the territory's interests.
"The place belongs to Hong Kong people," he told AFP on Saturday.
A survey published by Hong Kong University last June showed that only 33 per cent of Hong Kongers said they took pride in becoming a Chinese national, the lowest level since 1998.
The controversy over the construction of the military pier spilled over into public view in December, when a group of pro-independence activists broke into the army's Central Barracks in Hong Kong to protest against the handover of the land, China's state-run Global Times reported.
Hong Kong police have arrested five people in connection with the incident, during which activists also waved a former colonial flag and called on the PLA to leave Hong Kong.