A special policy address for HK at a special time

Since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, the last policy address of each of the three previous chief executives of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was a document mainly to outline the major achievements during his term of office. Rarely would he put forward policy suggestions with the intention to shape the policy agenda of his successor. Back then this was supposed to be an appropriate expression of courtesy as well as the politically right thing to do. Even if a departing chief executive attempted to convince his successor to continue or adopt his favoured policies, the chance of success was uncertain. We have seen quite a few policy discontinuities after each chief executive was replaced. One example is that many policies derived from the long-term strategic vision advocated by the “activistic” Tung Chee-hwa administration were not accepted by the Donald Tsang Yam-kuen government which insisted on the inviolability of the doctrine of “small government, big market”. Another example is that while Tsang’s administration was not enthusiastic about a closer economic relationship with the Chinese mainland, the successor government of Leung Chun-ying was keen to promote economic integration. Such policy discontinuities have hampered Hong Kong’s long-term development and made it difficult for the city to tackle effectively its deep-seated social and livelihood problems. They were sources of frustration to the business community and society as well.

Against this historical context, Carrie Lam Cheng yuet-ngor’s 2021 Policy Address, the last one in her current term of office, is special. She has deviated from the path trodden by her predecessors in the sense that in this policy address she puts forward a plethora of long-term policy recommendations for increasing land and housing supply, fostering high-tech industries, as well as expanding and upgrading the transport infrastructure of Hong Kong. Some of the policy recommendations are unconventional in character, such as basically abandoning “positive noninterventionism” and having the government adopt a leading role in comprehensively planning for the infrastructural, industrial, and residential development of the New Territories North. These policy proposals cover a wide range of policy domains. Some of the core policy proposals are tightly geared to accelerate Hong Kong’s involvement in the mainland’s development through extensive and intensive integration of Hong Kong’s development strategy with that of the country’s. The determination of Lam to take full advantage of the policies and measures devised by the central government to promote Hong Kong’s economic growth and diversification is clear and strong. The proposed policies and measures aimed at resolving Hong Kong’s deep-seated social and livelihood problems are less impressive as a lot of resources have already been spent on these problems in the past several years, leading to substantial depletion of the public coffers. Besides, as both the local economy and the world economy have been battered by COVID-19 and their future at least in the short run is not bright, financial prudence must be the golden rule to follow. Nonetheless, despite the limited short-term impact of the government’s policies on those deep-seated social and livelihood issues, the demonstrated strong commitment of the government to their long-term resolution and the reasonableness of the proposed policies and measures should be able to dent public discontent. In addition to these long-term policies and measures, Lam also proposes reorganizing the policy bureaux and establishing more commissioner positions to enhance the government’s capability to implement them.

Hong Kong’s development strategy is an integral component of the national development strategy and its implementation, successful or not, will have an impact on the country’s development. The central government will be concerned by the performance of the HKSAR government in this regard. Whoever oversees the HKSAR government must strenuously implement Hong Kong’s long-term development strategy and will be held accountable for it by the central government

Will the long-term development strategy charted by Lam and the associated policies and measures be adopted by whoever is the next chief executive of the HKSAR? Will policy discontinuities in the future persist notwithstanding the boldness of Lam to blaze a new trail in her special policy address? There is a good chance that policy discontinuities will no longer be the norm in the future. Assuming the absence of unforeseen exigencies and barring some practically needed modifications in the future, the development strategy put forward by Lam will likely be continued by whoever is the next chief executive. The reason for that is because Hong Kong is now in a special historical moment which sees the central government playing a leading and proactive role in charting the city’s long-term development strategy.

In the aftermath of the violent uprising in 2019-20, the central government has assumed a powerful and indispensable role in charting the developmental path of Hong Kong, bearing in mind not only the needs of Hong Kong but also those of the country. In incorporating Hong Kong into the country’s development strategy, the central government has provided Hong Kong with many urgently needed policies and resources, as well as established a plethora of close institutional and physical linkages between Hong Kong and the mainland, allowing Hong Kong to draw economic vitality from the mainland’s vibrant economy. Hong Kong is granted more access and opportunities in the increasingly open mainland economy compared with its international competitors, enhancing the city’s status as the gateway between China and the world. Hong Kong can no longer depend on the inhospitable West and its protectionist and feeble economies as a source of developmental opportunities. It follows that the mainland’s crucial importance to Hong Kong’s future is now widely and rightly appreciated by the people of Hong Kong. Accordingly, the internal obstacles impeding economic cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland have weakened.

The central government, taking into consideration the ideas and suggestions from the HKSAR government and the patriotic economic elites, has managed over the years to craft a wise, clear, and comprehensive development strategy for Hong Kong. The decision of the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), the Belt and Road Initiative, the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, the further delegation of powers to Shenzhen, the forging of closer Shenzhen-Hong Kong ties, the geographical and functional expansion of Qianhai, the admonitions of Xia Baolong, the director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, and many other Hong Kong-oriented policies and measures together have formed a comprehensive and long-term policy framework which will shape Hong Kong’s developmental strategy and Hong Kong residents’ perception of their future. Successful implementation of this strategy by the mainland and Hong Kong will bring multiple benefits to the city, including the expansion of its geographical developmental space, sustained economic growth, diversification of its industrial structure, enhancement of its status as an international financial center and the most important offshore renminbi financial hub. A vibrant Hong Kong economy under the “one country, two systems” principle will in turn allow the city to make unique and indispensable contributions to the country’s development. Furthermore, a strong and more diversified economy will allow Hong Kong to have the necessary resources to resolve its deep-seated social and livelihood problems, particularly the staggering economic inequality, poverty, housing shortage, and inadequate mobility opportunities for the younger generation.

The development strategy and the associated policies and measures put forward by Lam in essence are derived from the comprehensive development strategy charted by the central government for the country as a whole and for Hong Kong in particular. This is evident in her prominent efforts to implement those items related to Hong Kong in the 14th Five-Year Plan. Hong Kong’s development strategy is an integral component of the national development strategy and its implementation, successful or not, will have an impact on the country’s development. The central government will be concerned by the performance of the HKSAR government in this regard. Whoever oversees the HKSAR government must strenuously implement Hong Kong’s long-term development strategy and will be held accountable for it by the central government. At the same time, the HKSAR government can expect a lot of support from the central government in the process. In the future, it is unavoidable that different chief executives might have different ideas as to the appropriate policies and measures needed to implement this development strategy, but I would not envisage these differences to be so wide as to result in gross discontinuities in the major public policies of the HKSAR.

All in all, the reason why Lam can come up with a special policy address is because it is written at a special time when Hong Kong’s development strategy has become an integral part of the national development strategy and the city’s development is inseparable from that of the country’s.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.