HONG KONG • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to continue strengthening ties with China, using an annual policy address to defend Beijing's tightening grip over the financial hub and announce new steps to boost economic links with the mainland.
In a speech yesterday, Mrs Lam said her administration's aim was to restore confidence following another tumultuous year. She spoke against the backdrop of a new wave of Covid-19 cases, an economy in deep contraction, political turmoil and worsening wealth inequality.
"The primary objective of this policy address is to look at ways to get Hong Kong out of the impasse and to restore people's confidence as soon as possible," she said in the speech, which was delayed by more than a month to accommodate her trip to Beijing for talks on how China can help with the finance hub's economic recovery.
Mrs Lam said Hong Kong's economy can benefit "from its proximity to the mainland and the central government's longstanding support under the 'one country, two systems' principle".
She spent a sizeable part of her speech promoting the Greater Bay Area project that envisions Hong Kong's economic and political future being more closely entwined with the nearby mainland cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
She spoke about various programmes to boost employment opportunities for young Hong Kongers to take jobs in the mainland, including a wage subsidy for people working in technology firms. But critics in Hong Kong see the project as an attempt to further erode the city's autonomy following Beijing's moves to crack down on political speech and assembly.
Many Hong Kong youth - including those who took part in protests that drew millions on the streets - have said they would not accept the much lower wages there, nor risk travelling there and being detained at the border.
Mrs Lam also spoke of the need to restore order and protect China's national security. "In the past year or so, Hong Kong has experienced the most severe political challenges since its return to the motherland," Mrs Lam said. "One of our urgent priorities is to restore... constitutional order and political system from chaos."
She accused foreign governments of increasing interference in Hong Kong's affairs, which she said were China's internal affairs, and that their actions were jeopardising national security.
Mrs Lam said the government will introduce a Bill to "enhance oath-taking" by civil servants and conduct widespread public education "to enhance the understanding of the rule of law". The government will launch programmes to educate Hong Kong's youth, who were at the front lines of last year's protests, about respecting China's national flag and its anthem.
Meanwhile, a plan to build artificial islands, estimated to cost at least HK$624 billion (S$108 billion), is expected to move further along in the coming year. The plan envisions building up to 400,000 homes across 1,700ha of reclaimed land between Lantau island and the main Hong Kong island.
Mrs Lam did not announce any significant new spending measures in her speech.
The government has already provided more than HK$310 billion in virus stimulus this year, with Mrs Lam previously saying that the tight fiscal situation means there is limited room for more expenditure.
A resurgence in Covid-19 cases is also proving to be a more immediate setback for the economy, which is set to contract 6.1 per cent this year.
The outbreak has already delayed a Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble meant to revive tourism in the two financial hubs.