Shopping List

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu is scheduled to give his first policy address on 19 October. Last week he launched the traditional public consultation exercise seeking input from the community on what subjects he should focus on.

I am sure that, like me, many citizens of Hong Kong will have a long shopping list of areas where we would like to see improvement. To make the speech a success, both the content and presentation need to be powerful. Here are some suggestions.

One item sure to be on everyone’s list is housing. Our deficiencies in this area are a glaring triple whammy: we have some of the most expensive residential property in the world; the wait for public housing stands at over six years, which is twice our target; the existence of micro flats is a scandal. There is really only one way to address the root of these problems, which are interconnected. The government needs to inject into the market a large number of reasonably sized apartments. This will be controversial: the property cartel has long enjoyed the present system to make exorbitant profits; the middle class has traditionally used home ownership as a store of wealth; and government revenues benefit from high land prices. Untying this Gordian knot will therefore hurt some powerful vested interests. But the opportunity has never been so good: Lee has the personal support of president Xi Jinping to tackle deep-rooted social problems, and an administration-friendly legislature. He should take the bull by the horns and announce a very big number – I recently suggested 200,000 units over five years – and a decent size for raising a family – I suggested a mixture of 500 and 700 square feet apartments. I stand by those suggestions.

A second area where we have the capacity to do a lot better is roadside air pollution. At one time we had a tax regime that heavily favoured electric vehicles with the result that Hong Kong enjoyed the highest number of Tesla cars per capita in the world. For some reason that policy was abandoned and replaced by a tepid road map. The main points are to cease registering fuel powered private cars from 2035, and to study how to move in the same direction with public transport and goods vehicles, setting a timetable by 2025. This is far too passive. Lee should advance the private car programme to 2027 (the end of his current term) and move more aggressively in the other areas. He should also set a technical standard so that all charging points can handle all electric vehicles.

National security can hardly be avoided. It is important in its own right and Hong Kong has failed for 25 years to implement a constitutional imperative. Moreover it is clear the United States, and, under its influence, other Western countries, has decided to restrain China’s rise using all tools to hand. It is our misfortune that Hong Kong can sometimes be one of those tools. We need to get the job done without further delay, on the basis of complete transparency and bona fide public consultation, borrowing wherever possible wording from similar legislation applied elsewhere.

We all know that Hong Kong does not always get a fair shake from the foreign media, some of whose members hew rather too closely to their own governments policy positions rather than being objective. This can be frustrating and it is tempting on occasion to exact a penalty of some sort. Certainly some members of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Central fear the lease for their premises will not be renewed when it expires later this year. Lee should take the opportunity of the policy address to take the high road: we will not tolerate threats to national security, but we welcome fair-minded scrutiny from both local and overseas media. In this spirit he should announce that he has ordered the relevant department to renew the lease on normal terms.

One issue that cannot be ducked is Hong Kong’s handling of COVID-19. Our present policy is simply unsustainable and we need to start changing course like our competitors have done. Instead of pretending that we can keep all the variants out, which we now know for certain is impossible, we need to focus on minimizing deaths and improving treatment for patients. At the same time we must open up our city to the outside world even if it means a long delay before we can free up access to and from the mainland.

In a speech last week at a conference organized by this newspaper Lee set out an enticing vision of Hong Kong’s future as one of the world’s leading international business centres, which we all want desperately to be achieved. We simply won’t get there if we continue to adopt our existing social distancing measures. A friend returned last week from a business trip to Singapore. He told me the whole city was buzzing and there many thousands of executives and companies relocating from Hong Kong, some permanently but many capable of being lured back if we get our house in order quickly. So they’re eating our lunch, I asked him. No, he said, they’ve already eaten our lunch, they’ve started on breakfast and dinner.

Two things Hong Kong can do without delay is allow returning residents to quarantine at home if testing negative, or positive with mild symptoms, and scrap the mask mandate outdoors. In the address Lee should announce further easing measures and also give a firm date for ending restrictions altogether. Even then it is likely to take six months for life here to revert to normal.

I am among the most patriotic citizens in the SAR. Watching the destruction of what has taken so many decades to build while slavishly adhering to a failed policy would sadden the stoutest heart.

It is time to revert to “Learning Truth From Facts”.