Big bang or damp squib? Why HK leader’s 2020 policy address may not really be the confidence booster a weary city needs

27-Nov-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had pinned high hopes on her latest policy address, assuring residents of the central government’s unwavering support to jump-start the city’s sputtering economy as she listed out initiative after initiative over more than two hours on Wednesday.

Her mission, as she pledged earlier, had been to restore confidence in the people amid the doom and gloom of the coronavirus pandemic. She titled her speech “Striving ahead with renewed perseverance”.

But while the annual policy blueprint which spanned the gamut of ideas from the Greater Bay Area to dental work for the elderly and from politics to car parks was comprehensive, it barely qualified as a confidence booster, analysts said.

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And despite its length, the speech still left several questions unaddressed, they said, such as how to mend the rifts in a community still polarised since anti-government protests erupted in June last year.

Over two hours and 15 minutes, Lam delivered on Wednesday her lengthiest policy speech since taking office in 2017 and after one of the most tumultuous times for the city as it was battered first by the protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill and then the pandemic.

As she walked into a chamber bereft of any opposition lawmakers as they had either boycotted or been booted out under a new instruction from Beijing for their alleged lack of patriotism, Lam sought to present a picture of a chief executive very much in charge. The message she tried to convey, analysts said, was that social order had been restored since the imposition of the Beijing-drafted national security law on June 30.

Lam the policy wonk emerged as she reeled off 200 new initiatives, at times leaving translators in the chamber breathless trying to catch up.

A former bureaucrat who reached the apex of the civil service as chief secretary before she plunged into politics, Lam pledged, among other things, to enhance the elderly dental assistance programme and went into such minutiae as the inclusion of more subsidised items, including the removal of bridges or crowns and the provision of root canal treatment.

She also listed out the provision of 1,600 units in 2028 by the clearance of interim housing in Shek Lei, in Kwai Chung in 2022 for public housing development.

Edmund Cheng Wai, a political scientist at City University, said the policy blueprint lacked eye-catching initiatives, the way her Lantau Tomorrow Vision sparked community-wide debate and, even if controversial, ignited hope in society then.

“She dished out many piecemeal measures but there was no big bang measure nor clear vision,” he said.

Cheng said the Lantau project, which was unveiled in Lam’s 2018 policy address, was attention-grabbing but the initiative also sparked anxiety about the environmental impact and long-term nature of the solution to an immediate housing crisis.

Under the plan, the government would create massive artificial islands off Lantau Island on 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of reclaimed land for housing and development.

Her policy speech looks like a combination of piecemeal measures, instead of a blueprint with strategic thinking and clear direction

Andrew Fung, Hong Kong Policy Research Institute

Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute think tank, said Lam deserved credit for her efforts to come up with measures to get Hong Kong beyond its current impasse despite the constraints facing her.

“But her policy speech looks like a combination of piecemeal measures, instead of a blueprint with strategic thinking and clear direction,” he said.

“Her blueprint is not inspiring. It can’t compare with the 10-year housing programme unveiled by then governor Murray MacLehose in his inaugural policy address in 1972, under which he set the ambitious target of housing 1.8 million people in a decade.”

Wednesday’s address, originally slated for October 14, was abruptly postponed by Lam just two days before. She cited the need to attend meetings on mainland China to secure opportunities for Hong Kong’s economic recovery amid the gloom of the coronavirus pandemic.

The central government’s support for revitalising Hong Kong’s economy, which has been hit hard by the public health crisis, was due to take centre stage.

There were clear signs of it, said analysts, but the message also seemed to be Hong Kong had to help itself chart the way forward, whether in boosting the economy or beating the pandemic.

On the so-called “gifts” or “fruits” she brought back from Beijing, Lam said the Stock Connect trading schemes between Hong Kong and the cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen would be enhanced, by opening up the cross-border investment programme to loss-making biotechnology firms listed in Hong Kong and stocks listed on the mainland’s sci-tech innovation board.

Another goodie: the Airport Authority will acquire more shares in Zhuhai Airport, a smaller airport in the bay area focused on domestic travel, to “deepen cooperation” in the aviation sector and build a “world-class aviation cluster”.

Meanwhile, a youth employment scheme will be launched to encourage enterprises with operations in both Hong Kong and the bay area cities to recruit and deploy local university graduates to work on the mainland. The scheme aims to provide 2,000 places.

Hong Kong people will query if the postponement of the policy address was justified

Ivan Choy, Chinese University

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a Chinese University political scientist, suspected that ordinary residents felt the measures to improve integration with the mainland had little to do with their lives in the immediate or medium-term.

“Maybe Hongkongers keen on investing in stocks will be excited with the enhancements to the cross-border investment programme,” Choy said. “But ordinary Hong Kong people will query if the postponement of the policy address was justified.”

A policy blueprint could not heal the wounds in the society, he and others said.

Choy’s colleague Ma Ngok said the blueprint lacked measures to mend divisions in society or restore the relationship between the government and the opposition.

“She dodged many pressing issues, such as how to mend the rift between the government and the community since the anti-government protests erupted last year,” he said.

Edmund Cheng said the government desperately needed to find ways to restore public trust. If Wednesday was all talk, Lam must now do more than walk the walk. She had more ground to cover to win over residents. “Without public support, a government can hardly introduce major policy changes,” Cheng said.


Category: Hong Kong

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