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Hundreds protest costly railway project in Hong Kong

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds in Hong Kong ringed the city’s legislature on Friday as public frustration mounted over government attempts to bulldoze through a high speed railway, an issue that has also catalyzed a fresh push for full democracy.

The HK$66.9 billion ($8.6 billion) high speed railway linking Hong Kong to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou has been championed by officials as a vital infrastructure project that could bring upwards of HK$87 billion in economic benefits over 50 years by vastly cutting travel times to Chinese cities.

Public bitterness has grown, however, over the planned razing of a village and rural swathes to make way for the project, along with growing cost estimates that now make the rail link one of the most expensive in the world on a per kilometer basis.

Outside the city’s legislature, Hong Kongers ranging from grizzled activists and villagers facing eviction, to young protesters feverishly posting updates on Twitter and Facebook, appealed to lawmakers inside not to approve funding for the rail-link that will augment a slower existing one to Guangzhou.

“The government has never asked us what we want,” said Chu Hoi-dick, a young activist who opposed the demolition of Hong Kong’s historic Star Ferry clock tower several years ago.

The rail link has also become a lightning rod for the venting of broader discontent at Hong Kong’s lack of democracy and government accountability for major policies.

Pro-democracy politicians are poised to resign en-masse from the city’s legislature this month in frustration at what they say is too slow a pace in political reforms.

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“Hong Kong’s role is changing in that no longer are we a so-called economic city. Hong Kong is fully aware that to stand up for our rights is the only way to safeguard our future,” said Albert Lai, chairman of the Professional Commons.

The Commons is an influential coalition of working professionals, whose detailed proposal for a cheaper alternative rail link with fewer disruptions has so far fallen on deaf government ears.

A vote on the rail link wasn’t expected until late evening.

Earlier this week, Leung Chun-ying, a senior member of Hong Kong’s cabinet, warned of growing public discontent, fueled in part from a yawning income gap and high property prices.

“Such a politically-alienated majority may perhaps at present have little capacity to disrupt economic life or political decision-making but within 10 years ... this will no longer be so,” he wrote in an article in the Hong Kong Journal this week.

An average of 99,000 passengers are expected by 2016 to travel daily on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong link, which will join Hong Kong to China’s high-speed rail network.

Officials have warned of great costs of further delays, while a fresh wave of Chinese visitors are expected to bring tourism, retail, logistics and other economic benefits.

Construction worker unions have also marched in support of the rail-link, saying it will bring thousands of new jobs.

Editing by Jerry Norton