Hong Kong’s leader has raised the possibility of expanding the quota of residents allowed to cross into mainland China each day from the current 2,000, but stressed any increase must be gradual and in line with Beijing’s strategy to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu suggested the possibility during a talk with more than 100 residents gathered at a government school on Saturday, one of dozens of sessions the leader had planned to gather feedback from the public as he prepares to deliver his maiden policy address on October 19.
Lee sought their ideas on ways to attract talent to Hong Kong, a pressing concern as waves of emigration continue to erode the population and threaten the city’s status as a business hub, while community leaders pressed him over how he would approach the housing shortage, youth development and national education, among other priorities.
“Do we need to increase the number of the 2,000 quota, especially for those who have special needs?” Lee said. “These are things that we have been proactively talking to the mainland authorities about.”
The consultation session at Tsuen Wan Government Secondary School. Photo: RTHK
One resident asked whether the government had considered creating a “civilian passage” for businesses and students, who currently face difficulties crossing the border in both directions due to travel restrictions imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19. Another audience member said his colleagues in the financial services industry had struggled with travel rules they felt were stifling business.
“The financial industry has entered an ice age over the past two years, with the main reason being a barrier preventing exchanges of people, despite arrangements made on the part of Hong Kong and mainland governments,” he said.
Lee pointed to the 2,000 slots available by lottery each day to residents seeking to cross the land border. The quota was increased from 1,300 just days after he took office in July, although locals are still subject to quarantine in a mainland hotel for seven days, followed by three days of home surveillance.
But Lee said any revision would have to take into account the different approaches that Hong Kong and the mainland had taken to controlling the pandemic, with the city putting more weight on a strategy aimed at keeping the economy strong.
City leader John Lee has raised the possibility of increasing the quota of residents allowed to cross the border into mainland China each day. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
“So we have to make sure the exchanges would not bring additional risks to the mainland,” he said, adding that it had to be done “one step at a time”.
Earlier this week, Lee characterised the communication between the government and mainland authorities on fully reopening the border as “good”, while No 2 official Eric Chan Kwok-ki said Hong Kong “had not stopped negotiating” on easing travel restrictions.
In a bid to bolster the economy, the government has shortened the seven-day hotel quarantine to three days under a new “3+4” arrangement, with the remaining four days spent at home under medical surveillance. Dr Albert Au Ka-wing of the Centre for Health Protection on Saturday said most imported Covid-19 infections were identified through polymerase chain reaction tests at the airport or during the first three days of hotel quarantine, as was the case before the rules were relaxed.
According to Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Algernon Yau Ying-wah, room exists for easing the rules even further provided Covid-19 infections decreased, although the figures have been steadily rising lately, with new cases surpassing 6,000 for the past three days.
Speaking on a radio programme in the morning, Yau pointed to several international events and forums expected to take place in the city in the coming months, which he believed would boost the vibrancy of the community and “tell the Hong Kong story”.
The challenges facing the Lee administration in the months leading up to his policy address are substantial. The economy has fallen into recession, choked by the strict travel curbs only now being relaxed, while major business lobbies have warned the city is slipping from its perch as the region’s ideal place to headquarter companies. The continuing brain drain comes at the same time the government is trying to reposition the city as a key supplier of innovation and technology for the economic beltway Beijing is building along the southern coast, known as the Greater Bay Area.
Lee has been tasked by Beijing with not only burnishing Hong Kong’s credentials abroad but also finding solutions to many of the problems at home that academics say played a role in the explosion of discontent that drove residents to protest in massive numbers in 2019, such as the persistent shortage of affordable housing.
The new leader has staked his reputation on delivering results, and his two-hour session on Saturday, one of 30 planned, was part of his wider pledge to listen to the complaints and suggestions of residents as he puts together his policy blueprint.
The audience members, drawn from nine districts, posed more than 30 questions to Lee at the session held at Tsuen Wan Government Secondary School, but none were about democratic development or how he planned to engage with the opposition camp, which has found itself on the political sidelines following an overhaul to the electoral system. He told a host from RTHK, the public broadcaster hosting the session, he was deeply interested in residents’ suggestions on how to retain talent, which the leader has already acknowledged was critical to remaining competitive.
The latest census figures show 113,200 residents have left Hong Kong over 12 months, and Lee said the city needed to “fight” for overseas talent while continuing to address the needs of those at home, a challenge he tied to his education policies.
“That is why, as I have suggested before, that we need to diversify and make sure our school subjects are more practical,” he said.
Lee added he would strive to ensure young people had the opportunity to pursue a broader range of careers and cited the government’s plan to invest more resources into cultural and sports development.
But he also argued young people needed to be shown the strengths of the country, giving the example of the space programme, which he hoped would soon open positions to residents.
“Apart from national education, it’s also a lesson for national pride,” Lee said.
On housing, the leader noted he had already set up two task forces to speed up the process of identifying land and building public flats, while he also promised to consider ways to improve the redevelopment of older private buildings.
After Lee took questions from residents, they split into smaller groups so 12 ministers could continue the discussions. The responses of Lee and his team impressed Ng Wai-kuen, the president of a homeowners association, who said the new administration needed time to come up with solutions to the challenges facing the city.
“At least for the time being, their responses were not perfunctory,” Ng said. “We hope that they will deliver some results and they also hope that we can give them some time, so they can deliver their promises one by one … We have to give them some time to work.”