Hong Kong leader takes aim at poverty, housing in policy speech

HONG KONG Wed Jan 15, 2014 2:17am EST

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying attends the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong January 13, 2014. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying attends the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong January 13, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying on Wednesday pledged to spend about HK$3 billion ($387 million) a year to help tackle poverty in a policy speech dominated by bread-and-butter issues that some saw as an attempt to dodge discussion of politics.

Leung, who came to power on a platform of making housing more affordable, has had a rocky 18 months at the helm with broad dissatisfaction over sky-high property prices and the slow pace of democratic reform in the city.

The government said it aimed to help more than 200,000 low-income families in the Asian financial centre where more than 1.3 million people, or 19.6 percent of the population, lived below the poverty line in 2012.

"Our poverty alleviation policy is to encourage young people and adults to become self-reliant through employment, while putting in place a reasonable and sustainable social security and welfare system to help those who cannot provide for themselves," Leung said.

He offered nothing to opposition forces pushing for universal suffrage, something China has promised by 2017 and an issue that brought thousands of demonstrators onto the streets this month to push for full democracy.

Beijing had promised direct elections in the former British colony as the goal for 2017, but the devil is in the detail of rules governing who can run.

"This is a deliberate strategy by the Hong Kong government to win the hearts and minds of the people on livelihood issues while simultaneously postponing the discussion on political reform," said political analyst Sonny Lo.

"The government, by using the policy address to focus on livelihood issues, can consolidate its legitimacy and authority."

One of the city's more vocal pro-democracy lawmakers, Leung Kwok-hung - also known as Long Hair - was ordered to leave the city's legislative assembly, where the speech was delivered, after he accused the government of "using a penny to help the poor".

Another pro-democracy lawmaker threw a stuffed toy wolf at Leung, who has been called "wolf" for his perceived abrasive style and close ties to the Communist Party.

PROPERTY MEASURES

The government said it would increase the maximum number of dwellings that can be built on a piece of land by 20 percent for some densely populated areas, which analysts said would increase short-term supply but create more cramped conditions.

"It will help the government to achieve its short-term housing supply targets," said Wong Leung Sing, research director at Centaline Property Agency. "But the sequels are lower living quality and even more contradictions in urban planning."

Hong Kong's property prices have seen the spread of cage homes, wire-mesh compartments stacked on top of each other, and cubicle apartments as residents are forced out of the market.

Leung said the government would raise the target for the completion of private units each year over the next five years by 40 percent, to 13,600 from an average of 9,680 over the past five years. He raised the forecast for public housing supply over the next 10 years by 36 percent.

To meet the public housing supply target, the government aims to provide an average of about 20,000 public rental housing units and about 8,000 cheaper government units for sale a year.

Leung announced no significant steps to reduce pollution, with just a few measures including lowering the sulfur content of local marine diesel from 0.5 percent to 0.05 percent, and ocean-going vessels at berth in Hong Kong being required to switch to low sulfur diesel from 2015.

The government also announced steps to boost education including subsidies for poor students, exchange programs and raising the number of slots for higher education.

($1 = 7.7541 Hong Kong dollars)

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Irene Jay Liu and Alice Woodhouse,; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Robert Birsel)

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