Hong Kong’s leader John Lee has delivered an inaugural policy address that emphasised the maintenance of national security and social order after a period of “chaos”, and unveiled big plans to attract new enterprises and world-class talent to the city.
After extended COVID-19 lockdowns and political upheavals in Hong Kong, Lee’s speech on Wednesday was focused on reviving the city’s credentials as an international business hub and pitching the metropolis as an attractive location for graduates of the world’s top universities to live and work.
Lee, a Beijing-anointed former career policeman, began his address with a focus on security, though he did not directly reference the years of pro-democracy protests that saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents take to the streets to assert their autonomy from Beijing, leading to clashes with police, and thousands of arrests.
The protest subsided with the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and Beijing’s passing of a national security law for Hong Kong that has seen more than 100 people, including a number of prominent activists, arrested, and many others fleeing the city.
Lee spoke of the advantages that Hong Kong offered under the “one country, two systems” where the city was a bridge linking mainland China with the rest of the world.
Hong Kong had returned to “order”, Lee said, and was starting “a new chapter” where it would shine once again as the “Pearl of the Orient”.
Maintenance of security and sovereignty was key to ensuring stability and prosperity in the city, said Lee, who as a former Hong Kong security chief oversaw the crackdown on the pro-democracy protests and is among a list of officials sanctioned by the United States.
“The development of Hong Kong allows no delay. Social stability is the prerequisite for our development, and we have to get rid of any interference,” Lee said.
He also spoke of the need to “guard vigilantly against threats”, strengthening of the rule of law, the administration of justice, and the public’s understanding of the law.
Al Jazeera’s Jessica Washington, reporting from Hong Kong, said Lee’s speech of more than two and a half hours was his first policy address, and national security was chief among issues in the early part of the presentation.
“How Hong Kong has gone from a situation of chaos now to one of governance and how the city must be vigilant to maintain the stability that they have worked hard to achieve … Now, he says, the challenge is to advance from that position of stability to one of prosperity,” Washington said of Lee’s speech.
“These are lines we’ve heard from China’s President Xi Jinping in the past, including at his address to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] Congress and when he visited Hong Kong as well,” she said.
Civil servants were also put on notice by Lee that improvements in governance were a priority and their need for “awareness of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests”. Civil service disciplinary measures would also be streamlined, according to Lee.
But, the primary focus of his speech was on selling Hong Kong as a centre for business and talent.
Hong Kong, which only scrapped mandatory quarantine for international arrivals last month, is set to end the year in a full-blown recession and has seen its fiscal deficit soar.
The border with the Chinese mainland remains all but closed because of Beijing’s strict “zero-COVID” rules.
Lee offered a blueprint to reverse the downturn and reboot the city as an attractive international hub.
“Over the past two years, the local workforce shrank by about 140,000,” he said.
“Apart from actively nurturing and retaining local talent, the government will proactively trawl the world for talent.”
Among the measures rolled out were HK$30bn ($3.8bn) for a new investment fund to attract overseas businesses and make it easier to hire foreigners in 13 key professions.
The city will also give preferential treatment to “top talent”, described as people who earn HK$2.5m ($320,000) or more annually and graduates from the top 100 universities around the world who have relevant working experience.
Overseas talent who paid extra taxes when buying property in Hong Kong can receive a refund when they become a permanent resident, a status available after living in the city for seven years, Lee added.
Experts and business groups had long warned that heavy-handed coronavirus policies were driving away foreign business and making it harder to attract and retain talent.
Hong Kong’s pace of reopening still lags behind regional rivals like Singapore, which has gone on a charm offensive to lure international talent and has bounced back as a global transport hub.
Aside from the pandemic, many residents – especially locals – have cited the continuing political crackdown as a primary reason for leaving, with many workplaces and schools reshaped by pro-Beijing ideology.
Beijing’s imposition of the sweeping national security law on Hong Kong since 2020 has largely silenced the city as a centre for free speech and eradicated most dissent.