HK’s Lam forced to give speech via video, urges calm

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. AFP

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam gave her annual policy speech via video on Wednesday after some lawmakers repeatedly heckled her at the city’s Legislative Council chamber.

Lam tried twice to begin her policy address inside the Legislative Council, which had opened for a new session some three months after it was trashed by masked anti-government protesters.

Legislative Council president Andrew Leung adjourned the meeting as Lam left the chamber. It was suspended within minutes of convening after three persons were ordered to leave the chamber.

She instead released a pre-recorded video, the first time a Hong Kong leader has been unable to deliver the annual address in person since the tradition began in 1948.

Regretting the circumstances that prevented her from speaking at the Council, Lam began her speech by urging calm in Hong Kong and with an appeal to creating an environment of mutual respect and trust in the city.

The speech was billed as an attempt to win hearts and minds after four months of seething protests, but lost in the chaos was the policy initiatives meant to enamour residents within the “One country, two policy” framework.

In her speech, Lam said that housing remained the most serious issue that her government must tackle. She vowed to reduce waiting times for public housing access, making it easier for first-time buyers to get mortgages on properties and increasing land supply through compulsory purchases and land reclamation.

The government-backed Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation will relax the ceiling of mortgage financing schemes for first-home buyers, she said.

Buyers are now permitted to borrow up to 90 per cent of the value of an apartment and the lending cap has been raised to $1 million from the previous $500,000.

She also pledged to gradually increase secondary market quotas to enable middle-income families to become homeowners.

“I hereby set a clear objective that every Hong Kong citizen and his family will no longer have to be troubled by or

preoccupied with the housing problem, and that they will be able to have their own home in Hong Kong, a city in which we all have a share,” Lam said.

Lam also pledged to “increase the supply of land for housing development in a persistent manner”.

“Given the importance of public transport infrastructure to housing development,” Lam said MTR Corporation Limited – the transit authority plagued with vandalism by masked protesters – will detail plans and designs for the Tung Chung Line Extension, Tuen Mun South Extension and Northern Link in the coming year.

Lam’s administration has struggled for months to resolve escalating protests sparked by a since-withdrawn extradition bill.

The violence intensified in October after Lam invoked a rarely used emergency law to ban protesters from wearing masks.

Hong Kong’s economy contracted in the second quarter and is widely expected to have fallen into a technical recession as soon as the third.

The US-China trade tension has impacted exports while protesters have scared away visitors from the city’s shopping malls, restaurants and luxury hotels.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan presented a $2.4 billion stimulus package in August to help bolster the economy. He’s also called on property owners and developers to offer rent relief to struggling retailers.

About 100 restaurants have shut down because of the unrest, affecting about 2,000 employees, he said in a Chinese-language blog post on Sunday.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday wanted by protesters in Hong Kong, which swiftly prompted an angry response from China.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which will now move to the Senate before it can become law, has drawn support in Congress.

The law would end the Hong Kong-US special trading status unless the US State Department certifies annually that city authorities are respecting human rights and the rule of law.

“Today we’re simply urging the Chinese president and the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to faithfully honour the government’s promises” that Hong Kong’s rights and autonomy would be protected, Republican Representative Chris Smith, prime sponsor of the bill, said on Tuesday on the House floor.

China expressed “strong indignation” over the passing of the act, which also requires the US president to identify and sanction people who are responsible for the erosion of autonomy and serious abuses of human rights in Hong Kong.

“What Hong Kong faces is not the so-called human rights and democracy issue at all, but the issue of stopping violence, reinstating order and upholding the rule of law as soon as possible,” said foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in a statement.

In closing her speech, Lam stressed the importance of reconciliation as she said, “We have to put aside differences and stop attacking each other so that we could set sail again based on the values upheld by all.”