Embattled Hong Kong leader announces housing boost

After being heckled, Carrie Lam said violent protests were among the reasons the city slipped into recession.

    Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced policies aimed at making housing more affordable and easing living costs, issues that have fuelled months of protests [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]
    Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced policies aimed at making housing more affordable and easing living costs, issues that have fuelled months of protests [Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters]

    Hours after opposition legislators thwarted her address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivered a speech via a video link during which she announced measures to ease a chronic housing shortage that has helped fuel months of street protests.

    In her address on Wednesday, Lam sharply criticised the protests, which have turned increasingly violent in recent weeks, blaming them for dragging the Chinese territory's economy into a recession.

    "Violent acts in recent months have aggravated the situation, posing an unprecedented challenge to our economy," she said in her annual policy speech.

    Lam noted that in the first half of 2019, Hong Kong saw its worst economic performance since the 2009 recession.

    "We consider that the Hong Kong economy has already slipped into a technical recession since the third quarter," Lam said.

    Hong Kong's gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the value of all finished goods and service produced, shrank by 0.4 percent in the three months to June from the previous quarter. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of economic decline. Official third quarter economic figures are due to be released on October 31. 

    Lam's speech outlined measures aimed at increasing the availability and affordability of housing for Hong Kong residents, many of whom have struggled with skyrocketing property prices and widening inequality.

    "Housing is not simply a commodity, but the community has a right to expect the government to provide housing," Lam said in the video after two failed attempts to deliver her speech at the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's parliament, on Wednesday due to heckling from opposition legislators.

    The measures included taking back large tracts of land from private developers, easing mortgage rules and providing rental subsidies to low-income households. Many critics have blamed developers for hoarding large tracts of land and housing to keep prices artificially high.

    Lam also announced a one-off cash allowance or a "living subsidy" for low-income households, with 165 billion Hong Kong dollars ($21bn) allocated for welfare and healthcare. Public cash for more ferry routes, waivers on commuter tunnel fees and travel discounts were also included in the speech.

    "At this stage, it's going to be a very difficult session for the Legislative Council," Al Jazeera's Asia correspondent Scott Heidler said.

    The scarcity of public housing, which has long been a key quality-of-life concern in Hong Kong, has become bound up with the current political crisis that began with protestors demonstrating against a proposed extradition law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. 

    "Obviously over these past four months their demands have grown well beyond freedom to access affordable housing," said Heidler.

    "She's tackled [affordable housing] in this policy address. But again, as we look at things right now, there are many more issues that can be tackled ... as far as the government is concerned," he said.

    No more concessions

    The protesters have a list of five demands, including the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, which Lam has agreed to. They also want Lam to step down, an inquiry into alleged police brutality during the protests, release of anti-government detainees and for universal suffrage.

    In her speech, Lam made no further concessions to protesters, despite growing calls for her to step down. But in a news conference after the address, she called for compromise and tolerance. She also said releasing jailed protesters is "totally against the rule of law in Hong Kong".

    Pro-democracy legislator Tanya Chan said Lam should resign for failing to address the protesters' five core demands.

    "Both her hands are soaked with blood. We hope Carrie Lam withdraws and quits," Chan said at a news conference on Wednesday. There have been injuries among both protesters and police.

    The formal withdrawal of the extradition bill has been postponed by a week, LegCo president Andrew Leung confirmed on Wednesday.

    Lam also said that calls for Hong Kong's independence will not be tolerated, although she promised to adhere to the 'one country, two systems' principle which gives Hong Kong greater social and political freedoms than the mainland following the 1997 handover of the territory to China by the United Kingdom.

    Her focus on living standards follows a rapid rise in inequality, which is high "both by historical standards and by international comparison", the International Monetary Fund said in a December 2018 report.

    "Over 10 percent of the population lives in poverty [with the poverty line defined as half of the median income for a given household size] ... and this ratio has increased since 2014," the IMF said.

    Soaring property prices is one of the key drivers of growing inequality, with rents for small apartments surging 273 percent from 2007 to 2017, far outpacing wage growth over the same period, according to British charity Oxfam.

    In her policy address, Lam also announced measures to improve the city's public spaces by revamping 170 leisure areas. Schoogoing children and their families also get help, with aid for preschools and special needs children.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News