Greater Bay Area to take centre stage in policy address, sources say, but new initiatives on hold until Hong Kong infections fall

Tony Cheung
·7-min read

Hong Kong’s chief executive has pledged to roll out 200 new initiatives during Wednesday’s annual policy address, with sources saying the Greater Bay Area integration plan will take centre stage – even though the city’s leader is expected to make it clear that untraced coronavirus cases must hit zero before any new cross-border measures can proceed.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also revealed on Tuesday that many of the new initiatives would be delivered through reforms of existing policies to minimise the cost to the public purse. The city was already anticipating a HK$139.1 billion (US$17.9 billion) deficit for the 2020-21 financial year, according to Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, and that number could ultimately be even higher, Lam said.

Lam is slated to deliver her fourth policy speech at the Legislative Council at 11am on Wednesday amid heightened public expectations after she abruptly postponed the flagship address in October. In delaying the speech by more than a month, she cited the need to take meetings with mainland officials to secure more opportunities for Hong Kong’s economic recovery amid the gloom of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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She will host a press conference in the afternoon following the address, and attend a televised forum in the evening to elaborate on her latest blueprint for tackling the city’s mounting economic, social and political issues.

Sources said Lam was still seeking to achieve the goal of eliminating all untraceable cases to pave the way for resuming cross-border travel, and she was expected to mention the target in her policy address. Reopening the border in a bid to boost the local economy had been a top priority of Lam’s mainland meeting blitz, but she was rebuffed and issued a stern, public reminder by a top official to redouble her virus containment efforts first.

“Without reaching zero or near-zero [untraceable cases] for a period, let say 14 days, there is no hope of a cross-border travel bubble,” the source said.

Another source said that while Lam would not set a deadline for achieving the goal, the hope was to eliminate infections as soon as possible.

“The government will carry more mandatory tests and do better contact tracing,” the source said. “Without lowering the number of cases, it would be hard to launch any of those policies.”

“Initiatives related to the Greater Bay Area will still be the centrepiece of her policy address, but she will also mention her targets to reach zero untraceable cases briefly as prerequisites,” he added.

The sources said a youth employment project would be announced, with the aim of creating thousands of jobs for young Hongkongers in the nine Guangdong cities included in the Greater Bay Area scheme, Beijing’s ambitious plan to integrate the cities with Hong Kong and Macau to form an economic powerhouse.

Job opportunities would be offered in sectors ranging from technology and finance to cultural and creative industries.

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Insiders also said Lam might unveil some modest improvements to the Stock Connect schemes between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, such as allowing more Hong Kong-listed biotech firms to take part, and promoting private equity funds, family offices and real estate investment trusts.

In her weekly press briefing on Tuesday, the city’s leader said a total of 700 new policy initiatives had been rolled out in the past three annual addresses.

“Ninety-five per cent of those policies were completed, or are in progress. For the remaining 5 per cent, we will be racing against time to get them done,” she said.

“It was not completely within our control that we could not deliver on some of those measures yet. You all remember in the past year, the Legislative Council did not spend much time on meetings; much time was spent on filibustering and making quorum calls. So I hope that in the coming year, more can be done.”

Lam noted that she had to roll out new policies without putting further strain on the government coffers.

“Public finances are extremely tight, and through this year’s budget and three rounds of anti-epidemic fund [initiatives], we have used HK$310 billion [to fight the pandemic]. This year’s deficit could be as high as that too,” she said.

“So many new policies will be done through reforms or simplifying … We aim to provide better public services without using extra resources.”

The chief executive also said that during her trip to Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen from November 3 to 7, she had secured the support of mainland authorities on a series of policy initiatives. Those initiatives would be revealed on Wednesday, she added.

“I hope to bring more hope to Hong Kong,” Lam said.

But the chief executive cautioned that until the Covid-19 crisis was under control in the city, it would be difficult to implement new policies to improve the economy and people’s livelihoods.

The government recently said it expected Hong Kong’s economy to shrink by 6.1 per cent this year – the worst decline on record.

Gross domestic product contracted by a worse-than-feared 3.5 per cent in the third quarter compared with a year ago, when the city was in the grip of anti-government protests.

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With Hong Kong’s unemployment rate reaching a 16-year high of 6.4 per cent – amounting to 257,800 people out of work between August and October – labour unions, as well as business and professional sectors, have called on the government for help.

Local politicians have urged Lam to use the bay area project as a springboard to revitalise the city’s ailing business environment, as well as to boost young people’s confidence in their future by offering them more job opportunities on both sides of the border.

Sources said the “GBA Youth Employment Project”, which would last for one year initially, would be launched by various departments, while local youth organisations would work with large companies that have expressed interest in taking part.

The government would subsidise the companies in creating jobs for Hong Kong young people, one source said, in the hope that young people could earn around HK$15,000 to HK$20,000 per month under the scheme.

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Felix Lee Kar-chung, executive director of UMP Healthcare Holdings, which provides medical and health care services in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, hoped that the government would respond to some of his sector’s long-standing demands to help city firms operating north of the border.

Topping his “policy address wish list” is the expansion of the government’s health care voucher scheme to cover all local medical institutions in the bay area.

Currently, Hongkongers aged 65 and above are entitled to annual vouchers worth HK$2,000 for private health care services, including visits to general practitioners and dentists. But up north, they can only be redeemed at University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital.

“The government should extend the scheme to cover accredited institutions in the Greater Bay Area, after all many Hongkongers live outside Shenzhen across Guangdong, as it’s quite expensive to live in Shenzhen. They have medical needs too,” Lee said.

His group partners with some 90 mainland institutions to run Hong Kong-style health care services in the province.

Additional reporting by Victor Ting

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