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Thursday, Mar 30, 2023

John Lee’s 100-day report: B for a strong start, A needed in policy address

John Lee’s 100-day report: B for a strong start, A needed in policy address

Lee’s efforts in dealing with controversial civil servant pay rises, rolling back Covid-19 curbs and boosting events has won local support. But will he be bold enough to open up the city further to attract the tourists, tech talent and investors Hong Kong badly needs?

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu completed his first 100 days in office on Saturday. It might seem a little harsh to start judging his performance so soon, but it is a tough job and time and tide wait for no man. He has had time to get his feet under the desk, so it is not unreasonable to make an assessment. He still has over 1,700 days remaining, so there is ample opportunity to correct any areas of weakness.

His first big decision concerned the annual civil service pay adjustment. The Pay Trend Survey Committee had recommended increases ranging from just over 2 per cent for junior staff to more than 7 per cent for senior officers.

The results were very controversial: civil servants felt they had done a good job during the pandemic and deserved an increase, but the private sector was aghast. Given the economic environment, the normally supportive Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce spoke out strongly against it. For reasons still not entirely clear, the previous administration sat on the issue for several weeks and then ducked making a decision.

Lee quickly resolved the matter with a commonsense 2.5 per cent across-the-board increase. This proved a useful precedent for dealing with domestic helper pay later.

But, it is in the context of Covid-19 policy that the new government has made the most impact. Within days of taking office, Lee scrapped the flight suspension mechanism, which banned airline routes found to have carried a set number of incoming passengers infected with Covid-19. Why this was ever introduced, and how it lingered so long, remain mysteries. In one fell swoop, a system that produced such unreasonable outcomes was gone. The dismal daily press briefings have also disappeared.

Most dramatic have been the quarantine changes. Seven days in a quarantine hotel was first cut to three, plus a further four days of medical surveillance, and is now down to “0+3”. These improvements have been widely welcomed by the local community. People feel able to travel for the first time in nearly three years without onerous and expensive quarantine requirements on their return.

Lee clearly means to show that Hong Kong is on the comeback trail. Hence his talking up of two events scheduled for early next month: the Global Financial Leaders’ Forum and Hong Kong Sevens rugby. Later will come the Hong Kong Open golf tournament. It is vital for our economy that these are all highly successful; tangible proof that our city is open again.

We have lost too many events – the Trailwalker, World Dragon Boat Racing Championships, the marathon (now tentatively rescheduled for next year), to name a few. It has been great to see the world’s top snooker players in town this past week. But the photo of Ronnie O’Sullivan and other top stars wearing masks has gone around the world. The message it sends is mixed at best.

(From left) Hong Kong’s Ng On-yee and Marco Fu, mainland China’s Zhao Xintong, Scotland’s John Higgins, Australia’s Neil Robertson, and England’s Mark Selby, Judd Trump and Ronnie O’Sullivan at a meet-the-players event in Hong Kong on October 5, ahead of the Hong Kong Masters snooker tournament which runs from October 6-9 at the Coliseum.

We must not see the same kind of photos of the Sevens crowds in four weeks – but if the rules stay, that is what we will get. And the dinner at the Global Financial Leaders’ Forum dinner will require 200 senior business leaders to submit their rapid antigen test results.

The contrast with our competitors, especially Singapore, will be too painful. While tens of thousands of the Lion City’s maskless fans welcomed the return of the Formula One Grand Prix, hundreds of Hong Kong’s masked football supporters had to make do with a match against Myanmar.

Maskless crowds at the start of the F1 Singapore Grand Prix night race at the Marina Bay Street Circuit on October 2.

So, all eyes are turning to the policy address next week. Lee has boldly made substantive changes that have won him local support. The question is whether he will be sufficiently bold in the next phase of opening up to attract tourists, the technology talent we need, and the businessmen and investors who can get our economy humming again.

After all, they do not compare Hong Kong with where it was a few months ago. They compare us with where our rivals are now. Our competitors, with the sole exception of Shanghai, have all opened up.

Because we have become used to the regulations, we sometimes lose sight of just how restrictive they seem to people outside Hong Kong.

Apart from post-arrival health monitoring and masks, we have a stringent testing regime, controls on the size of outdoor gatherings, a requirement to register entry to all manner of premises, and vulnerability to the sudden testing of whole buildings. Many other places had no such arrangements and those that did have scrapped them.

The other big issue facing Lee in the policy address will be housing. Far more needs to be done to produce flats, especially for public rental. The most comprehensive solution is accelerated development of the Northern Metropolis because that is the only location with enough land to address the problem entirely. Moreover, it fits well with the idea of closer tech cooperation with Shenzhen.

But some still cling to the idea that it would be better to cut the heart out of our world-class Fanling golf course. The implication is that only by standing up against the better-off can the government show it is serious about ending the scandal of subdivided flats and micro flats. It is a false argument and Lee should reject it.

I am inclined to give our chief executive a B for his efforts so far. A lower mark would be too critical, a higher one not yet justified. The mark is partly aspirational: “Strong start with room for further development”. We need Lee to shoot for an A next week.


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