In a speech widely seen as an attempt to address rising anti-Beijing sentiment, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying rolled out a series of policies to increase housing supply, reduce choking pollution and tackle poverty.
Leung’s first address, which sets out the blueprint for the next five years, comes a week after pro-democracy lawmakers failed in an impeachment bid and after a number of large-scale street protests pressing for greater democracy.
He took office in July after being chosen by a 1,200-member election committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites, amid rising anger over what many perceive to be China’s meddling in local affairs.
“The top priority of the current term government is to tackle the housing problem,” the 58-year-old told lawmakers, following a sharp rise in property prices and an outcry over the cramped living conditions of tens of thousands.
“We recognise that problems stemming from property prices and rental, cage homes, cubicle apartments and sub-divided units cannot be solved overnight.
“But we must acknowledge these problems, understand the gravity of the situation, and take the first step forward to resolve them,” he said.
He said the government would aggressively increase land supply to provide around 128,700 new homes “in the short-to medium-term”, with a range of measures including the conversion of 13 green belt zones and further land reclamation.
On air pollution, which regularly shrouds Hong Kong’s iconic skyline in smog, Leung said the government would set aside HK$10 billion ($1.3 billion) to phase out old diesel-engined vehicles and reduce roadside pollution.
He said the government would also consider new laws to make ships berthing at Hong Kong — one of the world’s busiest ports — switch to cleaner fuels.
“With better environmental conservation, Hong Kong can be the loveliest city in the world,” he said on pollution, which kills some 3,200 people in the financial hub annually, according to a study.
Leung said the government would maintain its popular ban on pregnant mainland Chinese women visiting the city to give birth so their children can acquire residence. The extra births also strain medical services.
He said a poverty line would be set to try to help the “many people who live a hand-to-mouth existence”; the number of residential care places for the elderly would be raised; and the possibility of free kindergarten places for all children would be examined.
Skirting the thorny issue of universal suffrage, which many in the city of seven million have demanded, he reiterated that the government would “at an appropriate juncture” launch a consultation on ways to elect the chief executive in 2017.
China — which took over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 but grants it semi-autonomous status — has said the chief executive could be directly elected in 2017 at the earliest, with the legislature following by 2020.
As he prepared to give his speech several radical pro-democracy lawmakers were ordered to leave the chamber after chanting: “Leung Chun-ying, step down” and “Down with the communist regime”.
Leung’s approval rating has plunged to 31 percent, the lowest since he took office, according to an opinion poll released by the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday.
Demonstrators in several protests have seized upon the issue of structures built without planning permission at Leung’s home as evidence of his untrustworthiness.
Repeated apologies have failed to quell calls for his head.