Hong Kong leader John Lee Ka-chiu has played down suggestions residents have left the city in droves over unhappiness, calling it a “rough” conclusion. The chief executive, who earlier stated in his maiden policy address that 140,000 workers had left the city, was grilled by residents on a radio programme on Thursday morning, with critics accusing him of going all out to lure talent amid a brain drain while failing to acknowledge push factors. Defending his position, Lee said: “Everyone has a different story.” He argued some residents might have left for their studies or families, as well as unique situations arising from the coronavirus pandemic. While stating he did not disagree that some residents might be unhappy, Lee said it was “a rough conclusion” to assume that was the main cause of the emigration wave. In his first policy address on Wednesday, Lee unveiled new talent schemes to lure global elites, businesses and professionals. Did Hong Kong leader John Lee deliver with his first policy address? One of the main thrusts of his efforts is a two-year visa to be granted to those earning at least HK$2.5 million (US$318,500) a year, or graduates from one of the world’s top 100 universities with at least three years of work experience. The sponsorship of an employer is not required. Employment visas would be extended to a maximum of three years, Lee also said. Companies will be allowed to bring in staff from overseas without having to prove difficulties in hiring locals to fill the jobs, for 13 professions facing shortages. Yet, Lee was on Thursday asked if such a scheme was sufficient to compete with Singapore’s appeal , with the city state rolling out a talent programme welcoming applicants earning S$360,000 annually – just under HK$2 million or about US$252,920 – while granting spouses the right to work. Lee said every place tailor-made its own scheme according to its “DNA” – a term he used after his policy address when describing Hong Kong’s advantage. The chief executive said Hong Kong’s version had better depth in covering university graduates as it would be offered to more than 100 elite institutions, resulting in many potential candidates. “If you do the maths, we are pretty aggressive,” he said, adding: “I won’t compare it with a particular place. I don’t want people to think that I am targeting a particular place.” Lee said Hong Kong had the DNA to thrive before the pandemic and amid “black violence” – a description used by officials for the 2019 social unrest. Lee, who had not used the term since he became city leader in July, said as long as Hong Kong remained competitive, people who had moved abroad would return. Talented non-locals who stay in Hong Kong will get refund of hefty property tax He said he needed to keep the supply of private housing stable without drastic changes but explore better ways to help homebuyers with loans. Lee stressed that while his policy blueprint focused on public rental housing, it did not mean the government would stop at that. His administration would raise a raft of amendments in five bills to the Legislative Council to streamline procedures for land development, he vowed, but cautioned “there is no magic in building houses”. 30,000 bigger temporary flats in Hong Kong promised to ease housing problems A caller argued that people left because they aspired for freedom, questioning whether Beijing really cared about the city and citing mainland China’s reluctance to fully reopen its border. Lee said Hong Kong would have to meet the mainland’s standards for reopening, adding central authorities were considering his idea to quarantine travellers in the city before crossing the border. He also thanked mainland authorities for sending medical help to Hong Kong at the height of the severe fifth Covid-19 wave earlier this year, as well as the business opportunities the country had provided. Separately in a session with lawmakers at the Legislative Council, Lee was also asked about his plan to woo talent, which would allow foreign homebuyers to recoup extra stamp duty paid if they became permanent residents after seven years. Under cooling measures introduced years ago to discourage property speculation, non-locals are required to pay a 30 per cent stamp duty when they buy a home, twice as much as Hongkongers who are not first-time buyers. Accountancy sector lawmaker Edmund Wong Chun-sek asked if Lee had considered taking it a step further by waiving extra stamp duty for non-locals, unless they resell their homes before becoming permanent residents. Lee said officials came up with the current proposal to give non-locals favourable treatment without triggering too much market change. Referring to his “red team”, a new concept introduced by Lee in the government’s daily decision-making to plug loopholes and improve policies, the chief executive said: “One of the counterarguments of my red team is that if we want these people to settle here, they should be treated the same as local residents, but others in the team warned that such measures would cause property speculation. So the current proposal is the midway point.” 7 key takeaways from Hong Kong leader John Lee’s first policy address Real estate sector lawmaker Louis Loong Hon-biu also asked Lee to explain under what circumstances the government would consider further stamp duty relaxations. “Hong Kong is now facing global political and economic uncertainties, and the challenges of rising interest rates,” Loong said. “Now there are no more speculators in the market. If the property prices continue to drop, more than 1.3 million homeowners’ families would be hard hit, and the banking system could be affected too.” Lee said that in considering whether to adjust stamp duties, the government must look at whether the factors prompting the measures still existed. “We will keep a close eye on the market situation, including property prices, amount of transactions, sale of new residential projects, the city’s economic situation, as well as external factors,” he said.