Hong Kong's likely leader pledges to "solidify" its international role

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HONG KONG, April 29 (Reuters) - Hong Kong's sole candidate to become its next leader mapped out his policy platform on Friday, saying his focus will be on enhancing the city's governance, increasing the housing supply and maintaining its international status.

John Lee, 64, a former deputy head of police, is expected to be appointed Hong Kong's chief executive in a selection process on May 8, with the backing of Beijing.

"We are the access to the mainland market. These are the strengths that will not be replaced by any cities in China or any countries in the world," Lee told reporters after the launch of his manifesto entitled "Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together".

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Lee is due to take over as the former British colony's chief executive on July 1, replacing Carrie Lam who is stepping down at the end of her first term. Critics have blamed Lam for mishandling crises including anti-government protests in 2019 and COVID-19.

Lee will take over the Chinese-ruled city amid growing concern in the financial community that its role as an international hub of commerce could be at risk.

The questions have been raised partly because of extended COVID lockdowns but also because of a 2020 national security law that critics, including Western governments, say authorities have used to clamp down on opposition democrats, the media and free speech.

Hong Kong and Chinese officials argue that the law has restored stability to Hong Kong and will safeguard its economic success.

Lee did not refer to the controversy over the law in his manifesto but said he would seek to preserve Hong Kong's "global inter-connectivity" and "solidify its position as a leading international city".

Lee and several other officials were sanctioned by the United States in 2020 over what it said was their role in curbing the city's freedoms under the China-imposed national security law.

'HOUSING IS KEY'

Speaking to supporters as he presented his manifesto, Lee said Hong Kong would develop a new metropolis area in its north on the border with mainland China and turn it into a new growth engine.

"It is an important element for our integration with the GBA and mainland China," he said, referring to the Greater Bay Area, a Chinese government plan to link commercial centres around the mouth of the Pearl river.

"Through the 'Northern Metropolis' we will have many development opportunities with Shenzhen to complement with each other," he said, referring to the neighbouring Chinese city.

Lee said the new development would also help address the perennial problem of affordable housing, and the government would streamline procedures to build more housing more efficiently.

"Housing is the key to solve different issues," including poverty and youth development, he said.

Providing affordable housing has been a priority for all of Hong Kong's leaders since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997 but despite their efforts, many people still live in cramped spaces such as "cage homes" and sub-divided flats in one of the world's most expensive property markets.

Beijing identified housing woes as a major factor behind discontent, especially among the city's youth, that led to the pro-democracy, anti-government protests in 2019.

Lee also said he would restructure the Hong Kong administration to enhance its governance capability and strengthen its policy research, without giving specifics.

On the vexed question of security, Lee said in his manifesto he would lay the foundation for stability by enacting more security laws and conducting thorough security risk assessments in areas including finance and infrastructure.

No other serious contenders have come forward for the job of city leader, unlike on previous occasions since Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula aimed at preserving its freedoms.

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Editing by Robert Birsel

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