SCMP: Hong Kong is launching a months-long campaign aiming to “beautify” the city, targeting hundreds of hygiene black spots, forming overnight anti-rodent teams and deploying artificial intelligence to identify dangerous signboards.

The scheme is part of the “Hong Kong New Cityscape” clean-up campaign and is in line with Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s election promises, which included setting key performance indicators to improve the city’s liveability.

Warner Cheuk Wing-hing, deputy chief secretary for administration, who leads the District Matters Co-ordination Task Force, on Friday said he hoped Hongkongers would see authorities’ determination and ability to boost hygiene in the city. He also pointed out that cross-department communication and roles on the matter were unclear in the past.

“I urge residents to be devoted to this campaign, which affects our living environment and Hong Kong’s international image. I hope they can show their affection for the city through their participation,” Cheuk said at the first press conference held by the body since it was set up in July.

The task force involves the Environmental and Ecology Bureau and departments of housing, food and environmental hygiene, home affairs and buildings.

Cheuk said that unlike previous administrations, the team would set out a clear division of labour and focus on issues including illegal refuse deposits, dripping air conditioners, rodent infestation and street obstructions.

The two-phase citywide campaign, with 19 overnight anti-rodent teams, will launch on Sunday.

The first phase of the drive will focus on managing hygiene with a specific goal of targeting some 600 black spots, while the second phase slated for October will be aimed at improving the cityscape, such as its gardens and parks.

The anti-rodent teams will operate at night, with “a great number” of traps installed under a new strategy. The devices would be set up around midnight and collected before dawn, said Secretary for Environment and Ecology Tse Chin-wan.

While he did not have the data on how many rats had been caught by the new team, Tse said that preliminary observations showed that the approach was proving effective.

The higher performance resulted from the rats’ nocturnal behaviours, he explained. Using a method that he said was a new technology, baits would be placed in a T-shaped rodent bait station instead of a plastic bag to attract the animal.

The 600 black spots mentioned included locations rampant with illegal waste dumping, alleys with rodent problems and dripping air conditioners, Cheuk said.

He added that the government had failed to sustain a similar scheme in the past as the division of work and responsibilities were unclear among different departments – a matter he said had been rectified under the new task force.

“We have sorted out and coordinated our responsibilities … There must be people to take up the mantle. There must be a channel for complaints and the department must take follow-up action. This is our goal,” he said.

Tse said authorities would also step up cleaning up polyfoam boxes in wet markets and wholesale stalls, apart from solving the rodent issue.

Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene Irene Young Bick-kwan, meanwhile, said authorities had earmarked HK$500 million (US$63.7 million) to enhance street cleanliness, including hiring more people to clean up illegal refuse.

Authorities would install CCTV cameras at over 300 waste disposal black spots to deter such behaviour, she added.

Cheuk said the task force would focus on the “beautification” of the city in the second phase by replacing old street signs and adding new sewer cover designs.

“I think that is something that we can do to enhance the attractiveness of Hong Kong … I don’t think we need to [take reference from a particular city]. But for example from places like Shenzhen, I think the landscape architecture there is quite pleasing to the eye,” he said. “I think we will strive to achieve at least the same level of landscape architecture there.”

Director of Buildings Clarice Yu Po-mei said officials would repair or remove at least 1,700 signboards in the city this year and the department had partnered with a start-up to develop an artificial intelligence system capable of detecting dangerous signboards using vehicles installed with scanners, GPS and cameras.

She also dismissed privacy concerns, saying the system would blur out faces in the photos.

Cheuk said the task force would formulate and announce its key performance indicators in October, adding that the city would see “continuous improvement” in one to two years. The district services and community care teams across 18 districts, also a new initiative unveiled in Lee’s election manifesto, would also participate in the campaign.

The task force, led by Cheuk and mainly driven by the Environment and Ecology Bureau, is among four new interdepartmental bodies set up by city leader Lee in July. It is the first task force to hold a press conference to report on work progress.

Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong said that while he supported the campaign, authorities should also allocate resources to recruit more manpower and strengthen support for frontline cleaners. This included setting up break rooms with water and electricity for them near their working locations.

However, Lawrence Iu, executive director of public policy think tank Civic Exchange, said the government had yet to adopt a holistic approach to tackling waste issues.

“It can’t deal with the root cause unless the plan comes with ways to collect, classify and process food waste,” he said. “The government didn’t say how it could fit into existing waste blueprints.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party said the government failed to mention how it could assist in eradicating rats in private places and also questioned whether authorities could live up to its promises.

Originally published on SCMP on 12 Aug 2022. Written by Nadia Lam and Ezra Cheung.