John Lee’s Campaign Platform, Policy Directions and Reform Challenges
Judging from the campaign platform of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election candidate John Lee, his policy directions are addressing not only the socio-economic roots of the political disturbances in the latter half of 2019, but they are also encountering new challenges in the process of enhancing governing capability, streamlining the supply and accommodation of housing procedures, increasing the city’s competitiveness, and creating a caring society in which youth mobility will be improved.
First, Lee vows to enhance the governing capability of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) by (1) improving executive-legislative relations, (2) exploring the reorganization of governmental secretaries, (3) strengthening the leadership role of leading officials, (4) formulating Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for government departments, (5) reviewing administrative regulations and improving efficiency, (6) strengthening crisis management ability through a mobilization mechanism led by high-ranking officials, (7) establishing a civil service culture loyal to the Chinese constitution and the HKSAR Basic Law, (8) implementing and legislating on Article 23 of the Basic Law, (9) establishing multiple channels of connections with district organizations and volunteer groups, (10) maintaining the cohesiveness of governing talents who are “loving China and Hong Kong,” and (11) embracing all kinds of talents to elevate the policy research standard and vitality of think tanks.
Analytically speaking, the improvement of executive-legislative relations will require John Lee and his new batch of secretaries, undersecretaries and political assistants to reach out to Legislative Council (LegCo) members formally or informally in a more assertive way. The top policy-making Executive Council will need a new composition reflective of the three components of LegCo members: those elected from direct elections, functional constituencies and Election Committee. The reorganization of governmental secretaries is long overdue, especially in the area of housing in which different departments, such as Buildings Department (under Secretary for Development), Planning Department (under Secretary for Development), Lands Department (under Secretary for Development), Transport and Housing Bureau (under Secretary for Transport and Housing), Housing Department (under Secretary for Transport and Housing) have perhaps lacked a very strong leadership and highly effective coordination.
Although the HKSAR civil service has been traditionally regarded as generally effective, the rapidly changing circumstances have exposed the problems of bureaucratism and red tape that must be addressed urgently. As such, John Lee’s emphases on the leadership role of leading officials and departmental KPIs are necessary and progressive moves. Most importantly, the crisis management ability of a few departments was highly controversial, such as the Health Department and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department whose slow responses to Omicron and its victims were severely criticized.
Another challenge is to reestablish the Central Policy Unit (CPU), which should ideally provide policy advice and research suggestions to not only all secretaries and undersecretaries, but also the unofficial members of ExCo so that policy advice to the top policymakers will become far more effective than ever before. Surveys should be reconducted before the government put forward policy proposals to the LegCo and members of the public for deliberation. The CPU, if reestablished, should engage private think tanks and civil society groups in a more assertive manner. The CPU played a critical role in the HKSAR governance from July 1, 1997, to 2018, when it was changed to Policy Innovation and Coordination Office (PICO). However, PICO did not demonstrate its societal outreach effectively. Nor did it help the government sufficiently in tapping public opinions prior to the formulation of key policies. The revitalization of CPU and its reconnections with private think tanks and societal groups, including the youth, are imperative to improve the HKSAR’s governing capability.
The second platform of John Lee is to streamline the procedures of supplying land and providing housing accommodation to the needy. He promises that those applicants who wait for public housing units for their accommodation will have one year of waiting time reduced – a welcome move to the poor and the needy. The government will deploy a multiplicity of methods to acquire more land, such as the use of the land resumption ordinance, the promotion of private landowners to participate in supplying more land, the use of Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) and Building Information Modeling (BIM) to build public housing units in a faster and cheaper way, the study of establishing an action group to speed up the provision of public housing estates and a coordinating group on land and housing supply, the planning of Northern Metropolis and the reclamation possibility of the Lantau Tomorrow Project, the review of brownfield sites in the New Territories for the provision of elderly homes and other housing units, the enhanced provision of middle-lower classes housing units for eligible applicants, and the review of railway networks so as to merge the HKSAR development with Shenzhen’s infrastructure projects.
All these measures are necessary and progressive. The use of MiC and BIM in the process of constructing public housing units is long overdue as it can and will speed up the supply of public housing units and shorten the waiting time for applicants to get accommodated. The entire thrust of John Lee’s second platform is to supply more land and housing units in a more effective, efficient and speedy way than ever before.
John Lee’s third campaign platform is to increase Hong Kong’s competitiveness by elevating the “pluralistic, tolerant, open international city status” of the HKSAR, digging out more international networks and resources, improving the “business environment which is free, transparent and which has the rule of law,” attracting foreign enterprises to be listed in the Hong Kong securities and stock markets, expanding the mutual market connections and transferability between Hong Kong and the mainland, developing financial technology and integrating the entity economy with digital development, developing Hong Kong as an asset and wealth management center, enriching the products and tools of offshore Renminbi, promoting the establishment of smart city, expanding talents in innovation and technology, attracting foreign talents to work and invest in Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area in scientific research, integrating scientific research findings into commercial and high-tech industry, utilizing the Northern Metropolis as a magnet to attract talents and capital, promoting the ecological development of the Northern Metropolis together with the need to build up new industries and new residence with high quality living standards, building up a Convention and Exhibition Subsidy Scheme for industries and small and medium enterprises, and participating in the development of the Greater Bay Area (GBA) while encouraging local youths to develop their innovative small and medium enterprises in the GBA.
One of the challenges of John Lee and his secretaries to maintain Hong Kong’s financial status and competitiveness is to protect and maintain the freedom of information in the HKSAR. If a “pluralistic, tolerant and open international status of the HKSAR” is emphasized, then there is a need to maintain a more relaxed socio-political atmosphere; the business environment is intertwined with the socio-political environment. In the summer of 2021, when the Anti-Sanctions Law was postponed in its implementation in the HKSAR, some members of the foreign and banking community felt at least relieved. As such, a more “tolerant” atmosphere will have to be fostered in the HKSAR. In short, a more relaxed atmosphere in Hong Kong will be conducive to the confidence of the international and foreign community. Otherwise, the emigration of some Hong Kong people and the departure of some foreigners, who have already left the HKSAR for various reasons, can and will undermine the international confidence in Hong Kong’s financial status, thereby indirectly affecting the competitiveness of the HKSAR.
It is also noteworthy that the plan of building up the convention and exhibition industry in the HKSAR may clash with Macau’s already emphasis on building the Macau-Hengqin cooperative zone as a convention and exhibition center. While mutual competition between Hong Kong and Macau is natural, the two cities will need to coordinate among their convention and exhibition industries through better communication and cooperation to avoid a zero-sum game.
Fourth and finally, John Lee’s emphasis on the need to provide youth mobility through the creation of an integrative and caring society is significant. It addresses the lack of youth mobility in Hong Kong for many years before the outbreak of political violence in the latter half of 2019. Apart from education reform and national education that have already been implemented, Lee stresses the need for the Hospital Authority to expand its services and resources, the promotion of grassroots-level health infrastructure, the improvement of mental health services, the consolidation of Chinese medicine in diagnosis, the prevention of intergenerational poverty among the children living in cage homes through the assistance from the government and non-governmental organizations, the reform of elderly homes where many old people died of Omicron, the merging of living subsidies for the elderly and the needy, the strengthening of the Family Council to promote family-based activities, the increase in nursery services, the enhancement of occupational safety among workers, the review of the system of contracting out services, the absorption of more young people into the government’s advisory bodies, and the enhancement of vocational and professional training among the youth.
Lee has been addressing the social origin of the anti-extradition protests in 2019 by tackling the youth discontent. However, a disarticulated area in his youth platform is to miss the linkage of developing sports policy (which falls into his third policy platform) and enhancing youth identity toward Hong Kong. Sports can regenerate youth identity and their sense of belonging to the HKSAR as well as their love toward their motherland China. As such, if a new secretary in sports and culture were created later, the tasks of reigniting youth participation in sports and the society and of re-instilling their political confidence will be critical for Hong Kong to move forward in the coming years. If some young people have already been “ostracized” and penalized for their involvement in the 2019 turbulence, it is perhaps time for the society to heal their wounds.
In conclusion, John Lee’s policy platform farsightedly and accurately addresses the socio-economic roots of the 2019 turbulence. It remains to be seen how his appointed secretaries, undersecretaries and political assistants will work with the existing civil servants to realize the four key points, which are necessary and progressive from an objective standpoint. Politically, the governing capability of the HKSAR will have to be enhanced through a more effective governmental think tank that will provide policy inputs to the ExCo and appointed officials and that will reengage the civil society and youth groups. Bureaucratism must be curbed, and red tape reduced in the coming years so that housing provision and land supply will be accelerated and that applicants’ waiting time will be shortened. Hong Kong’s competitiveness, however, depends on whether a really “pluralistic, tolerant and open” socio-political environment will be maintained. The business environment is by no means separated from the socio-political atmosphere. Last but not the least, the engagement of youth is extremely important because the past several years have already frightened so many of them that some have already adopted a passive, fatalist, pessimistic and cynical outlook that is detrimental to the society and economy of Hong Kong.