HONG KONG — Hong Kong's unpopular Beijing-backed leader said he'll make it a priority to solve the city's housing crisis, trying to soothe widespread discontent in his first major policy address since taking office.
Leung Chun-ying pledged Wednesday to tackle soaring property prices that have left many in the Asian financial center unable to afford a decent place to live. He also said improving the city's poor air quality would be a priority.
Those looking to see what Leung would say about plans to introduce full democracy were disappointed by a brief, vague mention about consultations near the end of his speech, which lasted more than two hours. Beijing has pledged to allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leader by 2017 at the earliest and all seats in the legislature by 2020. However, no roadmap has been laid out.
Since taking office in July after being handpicked by a 1,193-member committee packed with pro-Beijing tycoons, Leung's popularity has slid amid personal scandals involving unauthorized renovations to his luxury home.
Protests involving thousands of people calling for Leung to stop down have become common, most recently on New Year's Day. Leung, who survived an impeachment attempt by lawmakers last week, has become a target for public anger over a range of issues that also include unease about mainland China's influence on semiautonomous Hong Kong and a widening rich-poor gap.
Leung said he would make it a "top priority" of his government to "tackle the housing problem" in Hong Kong, where apartment prices are among the world's highest. Some residents are forced to rent units subdivided from already small apartments or even a metal cage in a room.
"Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings," Leung said. "Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and subdivided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people."
Leung appeared to acknowledge that the discontent poses a serious threat to his ability to manage one of Asia's wealthiest cities.
"I believe that home ownership by the middle class is crucial to social stability," Leung said, as he unveiled plans to provide 100,000 public housing apartments over five years starting in 2018. He even promised to crack down on people abusing the public housing system by renting their units out, which could help add 7,000 more units a year.
Leung also reiterated plans to find more room in space-starved Hong Kong to build housing, including reclaiming land from the sea or relocating sewage works to underground rock caverns to make way for apartments.
Leung also said he would make Hong Kong's air pollution problem a priority by getting older, dirtier diesel-engine vehicles off the road. The government is also considering laws requiring ships coming to the city's busy port to use cleaner, low-sulphur fuel.
Pollution is also exacerbated by emissions from tens of thousands of factories across the border in mainland China's Guangdong province, over which Hong Kong has little influence. The city's air pollution problems have become a problem for businesses trying to attract expatriate workers.