October 19, 2022
HONG KONG – Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu’s first Policy Address is keenly awaited, and there is no doubt that it will be under very close scrutiny from all quarters. In part, his Policy Address will be judged against the vision outlined in his manifesto titled “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together”, and the progress that has been made in key areas.
However, his inaugural Policy Address will eventually be judged on its ability to provide clear direction through a range of progressive policies that address the social inequality and provides a clear pathway toward economic prosperity for Hong Kong residents and for future generations.
Mr Lee is respected for his practical approach to solving difficult problems, and his willingness to listen to the views of the general public as well as those of his advisers. He is also held in very high regard by the central government. His manifesto was developed following a considerable amount of public consultation in an effort to gain a greater understanding of the needs, frustrations and aspirations of our citizens.
Throughout his first 100 days of office, we have seen the economy being continually battered by seemingly never-ending and ever-increasing levels of turmoil throughout the global economy. The situation has been compounded by levels of market volatility that have not been seen for years but which are severely impacting our prospects for economic recovery and growth. There can be no doubt that a tough challenge lies ahead.
In terms of policy, most would agree that there is real need for clarity on COVID-19 measures that will be adopted moving forward. Clarification and further easing are likely to act as a driver to stimulate economic recovery, reduce the flow of talent choosing to leave Hong Kong, and support reintegration into the international community.
The removal of hotel-quarantine measures for arrivals was a very welcome step forward and certainly beneficial to residents. It was the first tangible sign of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. However, the three-day medical-surveillance measures prohibit the revival of the inbound tourist market and remain problematic for many in the business community. Some of the social-distancing measures that continue to be implemented severely impact many within our community. Strict requirements for bars and restaurants had resulted in an unprecedented number of business closures and job losses. Yet similar measures have never been applied to public transport. Perhaps it is time to mandate community vaccination and remove the massive burden that people at low risk have been left to carry, on behalf of a small minority.
One of the first objectives outlined in Mr Lee’s manifesto was to improve the overall effectiveness and accountability of the government at all levels. He outlined measures that would be taken to reassess existing structures in an effort to improve interdepartmental engagement, systems, processes, leadership and accountability, all of which will enhance productivity and reduce or remove potential logjams. It will be interesting to learn about progress to date.
However, for most people, the more-pressing issues revolve around their ability to have a moderate standard of living, access to affordable housing, good education, reasonable employment prospects and a healthcare system that can meet the needs of an aging population. There is a massive disparity between the rich and the poor, and noticeably declining living standards for many middle-class families because of skyrocketing housing costs and stagnant wage growth.
The need for an adequate supply of affordable housing will be a key component of the Policy Address. It has been one of the most serious issues facing previous administrations, all of which have acknowledged and taken measures to resolve the problem, but their combined efforts have done little to adequately fix the problem that is facing Mr Lee and his government today.
The chief executive has indicated that he will drive the agenda. He will encourage greater cohesion among related parties, and each will be held accountable. Aligning the interests of all involved, some of whom may have different agendas, promises to be a difficult balancing act that will require strong levels of determination, vision and tenacity. Currently, the average size of a public rental housing unit is 30 to 40 square meters. This is roughly half the size of the equivalent in Singapore. Many have limited or inadequate amenities that cannot support what would be considered a reasonable quality of life in a developed economy.
Notwithstanding the shortage of land, hopefully, fresh thinking and a creative, pragmatic and accountable approach will address the quality as well as the quantity of the units planned. Urban regeneration and brownfield sites should be considered ahead of our limited greenbelt areas. It’s vital that they remain intact and undisturbed for the benefit of all citizens. These areas of natural beauty and abundant wildlife are valuable assets that cannot be replaced once they have been destroyed.
The Northern Metropolis development strategy and the Lantau Tomorrow Vision are massive urban development and reclamation projects whose real need or value are yet to be clearly understood. They will inevitably require massive support from government finances and warrant far greater community consultation and transparency to determine their true need or value.
In terms of economic prosperity, Mr Lee has clearly identified the key drivers that we are well poised to exploit and that once reflected the mantle of “Asia’s World City”. Now it’s time to exploit our position as a special administrative region, and reengage with our neighbors and trading partners, and to do that, we need to reopen our borders.
However, we must all remember that we are in a unique position: one that is based on our economic prosperity and that reflects our status as a major international financial center. It is one that our future role as a critical component of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area has bestowed upon us.
Our future success should not be deemed a forgone conclusion as we do need strong and determined leadership, and clear and effective policies in order to return stronger and better than before. Most people will look to the chief executive’s forthcoming Policy Address to provide clear direction and deliver policies that will reduce the wealth gap, improve living standards, and become the bedrock of future economic prosperity in a more-inclusive society.