HONG KONG (AFP) — Hong Kong’s leader on Wednesday revealed plans to revitalize the fortunes of the business hub in hopes of bringing back international know-how after a talent drain — but he vowed not to let up on political repression that transformed the city.
John Lee, a former Beijing-appointed security chief, gave a first policy speech in which he prioritized revitalizing a slumping economy and maintaining security while acknowledging that tens of thousands of people had fled a city known as the gateway to China and a regional economic hub region.
“Over the past two years, the local workforce has shrunk by about 140,000,” he said. “In addition to actively nurturing and retaining local talent, the government will be proactive in scouring the world for talent.”
The former British colony recently experienced its most turbulent period since it was ceded to China in 1997.
Huge and at times violent pro-democracy protests three years ago were followed by a sweeping crackdown on dissent and some of the world’s toughest rules for the coronavirus pandemic, many of which remained in place long after rivals reopened.
The city, which just scrapped mandatory quarantine on international arrivals last month, has skyrocketed its deficit as the border with mainland China remains virtually closed due to Beijing’s strict zero-COVID rules.
Lee’s speech offered his plan to reverse this downturn, including a new talent search office, a 30 billion HKD ($3.8 billion) fund to attract foreign companies and new rules to govern the hiring foreigners in 13 key professions.
The city will give preferential treatment to “top talent”, defined as those who earn at least HK$2.5 million a year and graduate from the world’s top 100 universities with relevant work experience.
Even with investor-friendly measures, restarting Hong Kong will be difficult.
Lee took office in July at a time of rising interest rates around the world, fears over China’s zero-COVID economy, uncertainty over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and bumps in Hong Kong’s pro-business reputation.
The Hong Kong Stock Exchange has lost more than a quarter of its value since the start of the year, placing it among the worst performers in the region. It was down 1.2% in Wednesday morning trading.
STABILITY IS THE PREREQUISITE
After nearly three years, the city is gradually moving away from its version of China’s zero COVID policy, which has failed to keep the virus out and cut the city off internationally.
Authorities scrapped the unpopular hotel quarantine for arriving travelers and relaxed some social distancing rules.
But the pace of reopening is lagging behind regional rivals like Singapore, which has launched its own charm offensive to attract talent and marketed itself as a global transport hub.
Lee stressed that the government would push further national security laws and possible new rules on “disinformation”.
“Hong Kong’s development allows no delay. Social stability is the prerequisite for our development and we must eliminate any interference,” Lee said.
Many departing residents have cited ongoing political repression as the main reason for leaving.
Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, following anti-democracy protests the previous year, upending the city’s once candid atmosphere and eradicating most divisiveness.
Most prominent local democracy activists are either in jail awaiting trial or have fled overseas as schools are ordered to turn students into Chinese patriots.
Lee’s keynote – which lasted two hours and 45 minutes – also covered major infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy and plans to create more housing in a city with one of the least real estate markets affordable in the world, which successive governments in Hong Kong have failed to address.