Why Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s 2021 policy address was unconventional – and does it hint at bid for second term?

·5-min read

As the last policy address of a chief executive’s tenure, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s speech on Wednesday was unconventional. Her 168-paragraph policy blueprint, her longest since taking up the office in 2017, was a cornucopia of new measures that would take years, even decades to be implemented and a repackaging of existing policies that did not quite move the public.

The highlight of her latest policy speech on integration with mainland China and fitting into Beijing’s 14th five-year plan also marks a shift in the Hong Kong government’s development strategy, according to analysts.

A thread that ran through her speech was a clear determination to align Hong Kong’s development with that of the country. Passed in March, the 14th five-year plan has dedicated a chapter to outlining strategies reinforcing the city’s status as an international financial, shipping, trading and legal services centre.

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“I am most convinced that Hong Kong can integrate into the overall development of the country and play an irreplaceable role as our country strides towards the second centenary goal of the nation,” Lam said.

Without a doubt, the most eye-catching initiative in her blueprint is the Northern Metropolis development strategy, a plan to transform the city’s land mass bordering Shenzhen into an IT and housing hub, exploiting the potential of the area and the benefits of being next to another economic powerhouse of the country. Shenzhen was ground zero of the country’s reform and opening up more than 40 years ago and the birthplace of Chinese tech giants.

Among the plans to ensure greater connectivity, Lam said Hong Kong’s railway would be extended over the border from Hung Shui Kiu in Yuen Long to Qianhai in Shenzhen.

Hong Kong’s planned HK$62 billion (US$8 billion) Northern Link, an MTR rail project serving the western and northern New Territories, will also be expanded to serve the Lok Ma Chau Loop IT hub and the Huanggang checkpoint.

Observers have said Carrie Lam’s latest policy blueprint marked a shift in government thinking on how Hong Kong can develop. Photo: Sun Yeung
Observers have said Carrie Lam’s latest policy blueprint marked a shift in government thinking on how Hong Kong can develop. Photo: Sun Yeung

Upon the full development of the entire Northern Metropolis, up to 926,000 flats, including the existing 390,000 homes in Yuen Long and North districts, will provide homes for about 2.5 million people. The number of jobs in the area will also grow more than fourfold from 116,000 currently to 650,000.

Long considered the world’s freest economy, Hong Kong has been on a learning curve over its role in national development following its return from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

6 key takeaways from Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s policy address

Fang Zhou, research director of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, a Hong Kong think tank, said Lam’s latest blueprint represented a crucial shift in the Hong Kong government’s thinking.

“The government is no longer confined by Hong Kong’s land mass of about 1,100 sq km when it maps out its development strategies,” he said.

“What is significant is that the plan to develop New Territories North will change the century-old pattern that Hong Kong’s economic activities are centred on both sides of Victoria Harbour,” Fang said.

Tian Feilong from Beihang University. Photo: AFP
Tian Feilong from Beihang University. Photo: AFP

His views were echoed by Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing.

“The plan to turn New Territories North into a metropolis marks a significant change in the Hong Kong government’s development strategy,” Tian said. “It’s an ambitious blueprint to tackle Hong Kong’s housing problem and facilitate the city’s economic restructuring by aligning with national development.”

The mainland academic, who advises the central government on Hong Kong affairs, said he believed Lam’s latest policy speech, which unveiled a raft of long-term initiatives, was a signal of her eagerness to serve a second term.

Lam has remained tight-lipped on seeking a second term, although it has been widely tipped that she will do so.

“I think she believes that she is capable of and duty-bound to serve for another five years to implement her blueprint,” Tian said.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said Lam’s latest policy address was very forward-looking compared with that of her predecessors.

“By mapping out long-term development strategies, Lam’s intention of seeking a second term is crystal clear. She wants to tell the central government that she has the determination to take up difficult tasks,” Choy said.

Speaking for more than two hours, Lam’s speech this year was her longest since she took the reins in 2017. In contrast, the city’s second chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in his second – and last – policy speech of his first term only had 76 paragraphs. It was devoid of groundbreaking policy initiatives.

In that policy address delivered in October 2006, Tsang ducked contentious issues such as the minimum wage, kicking them down the road for his second term starting in 2007.

Donald Tsang in 2006, delivering his policy address. Photo: Martin Chan
Donald Tsang in 2006, delivering his policy address. Photo: Martin Chan

Days after the delivery of Tsang’s policy address, Lau Siu-kai, then head of the Central Policy Unit, the government’s think tank, explained that Tsang could not and would not commit himself to policies on major issues that might hog-tie the chief executive of the next administration.

While Tsang might have been a stickler for observing an unwritten protocol of not pre-empting the next administration – which he ended up leading after his re-election – Lam in her final policy address of her first term took the opposite stance. It is so unconventional that it maps out plans for the city not just for next five years but also the next generation.

Will she be around to execute even a sliver of this vision?

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