Pollution and Housing Top Agenda for Hong Kong’s Embattled Leader

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying used his debut policy address Wednesday to announce plans to tackle air pollution and a chronic shortage of affordable housing

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Bobby Yip / Reuters

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speaks at a news conference following his maiden policy address in Hong Kong on Jan. 16, 2013

With characteristic haze shrouding the city’s densely crowded skyline, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made a cautious and thoughtful debut policy address Wednesday, announcing ambitious plans to tackle air pollution and a chronic shortage of affordable housing.

The measures are designed to strike a popular chord and shore up support for the beleaguered leader, who in his first six months in office has faced a no-confidence vote, street protests calling for his resignation and a scandal over unauthorized extensions he made to his Victoria Peak home. Last week he was also the target of an impeachment bid. It never appeared to have sufficient support among lawmakers to succeed, but as the first such attempt made in the local legislature since its establishment under the British in 1843, it was highly symbolic.

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Leung’s speech marked a notable departure from the noninterventionist mantra pursued by previous leaders — from colonial governors to those of Leung’s immediate post-reunification predecessors — and is certain to increase the distance between him and the city’s freewheeling tycoons. But such measures appear unavoidable in a city that is one of the world’s great financial centers but nonetheless a place of much social frustration, where thousands still live in notorious cage homes, where some families of four are crammed into spaces of 15 sq m or even less, and where choking smog is thought to contribute to about 3,200 premature deaths each year. Though he appears unable to tackle the political issues that many believe lie at the heart of Hong Kong’s malaise —the lack of representative government and a vexed relationship with a Beijing seen as encroaching on Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy — Leung is counting on his new quality-of-life policies to ease some social dissatisfaction. “He’s going to try to win the middle-of-the-road people,” says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.

In his address, Leung conceded that squalid living conditions had become “the reluctant choice for tens of thousands” and said that about 128,700 public-housing units would be built by 2020. He enumerated a number of radical proposals to increase the supply of available land, including the construction of artificial islands, extensive reclamation and the lifting of building restrictions in older parts of Hong Kong Island.

(TIME Asia Cover Story: Can Hong Kong Trust Leung Chun-ying?)

Leung also announced a $1.25 million subsidy plan to phase out heavily polluting diesel vehicles in a bid to drastically reduce the city’s chronic roadside pollution and said the government would finally consider mandating the use of low-sulfur fuels by the vast number of ships passing through the city’s famous port. Hong Kong is so laggardly in this regard that a shipping company, Maersk, which has been using low-sulfur fuel along with 17 other companies as part of a voluntary scheme, has been openly calling for tighter regulation in the face of official procrastination.

Unsurprisingly, in a city of the quick fix, Leung’s policies aren’t fast enough for some — even though they are easily the most comprehensive to be announced since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Organizations representing low-income groups want more affordable flats to be made available more quickly. “Our hopes were high, so we are disappointed,” says Ho Hei-wah, director of Society for Community Organization, which represents low-income groups. “The hope he had given us and what he is offering now are quite different.”

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Disappointment was also expressed at the Chief Executive’s reticence on the speed of the city’s political development. His election last year by an elite electoral college of just 1,200 carefully vetted members rankled not just democracy activists but also a sophisticated, well-educated populace that would very much like to choose its own leader — particularly when Leung’s term expires in 2017, the year given by Beijing as the earliest at which it would consider allowing direct elections in Hong Kong. Leung said only that the government would launch a consultation on future electoral systems. “The real decisions are to be made by Beijing, and we do not quite understand Beijing’s intentions yet,” says Cheng.

Also scant was the kind of inspirational and motivational vision that was a hallmark of Leung’s electoral campaign. “There’s nothing in [the policy address] other than focusing on one very specific single task, which is to find land to build public housing,” says pro-democracy legislator Charles Mok. “If you look at economic development, particularly in support for industry, in support for innovation and technology, basically he retreated to: ‘Believe me, I’m setting up a committee. We’ll look into it.’”

There is no denying, however, that Leung’s maiden policy address will win over large numbers of those who have previously been undecided about their Chief Executive. The annual budget speech, to be made by financial secretary John Tsang in February, offers the administration a further opportunity to boost its popularity by addressing income inequality and welfare issues. That will be crucial to Leung if he is to avoid a repeat of the same protests and antipathy that have plagued his first six months in office. And it will buy him time to think about the highly contentious issue of how his successor will be elected. Without any clarity on that, Cheng’s forecast is for a political climate as murky as the city’s polluted air: “We anticipate new political storms,” the analyst says.

— With reporting by Kristene Quan

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