Hong Kong’s high poverty rates, worsening housing crisis, curtailed freedoms as city leader Carrie Lam leaves office

  • After 5 years as chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is on track to depart with the lowest approval ratings of any leader since the handover from Britain
  • Her term has been dominated by massive democracy protests and a strict zero-Covid pandemic strategy, while social issues remain inadequately addressed
Agence France-Presse |

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Carrie Lam’s government survived the mass protest movement, but many say she failed to deliver on life improvement pledges. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong has emerged a more unequal city, its freedoms curtailed and international shine dulled after five years with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at the helm, analysts say, as her turbulent leadership draws to an end.

Lam, Hong Kong’s first woman leader, took office promising to heal divisions and tackle livelihood issues, especially the city’s housing crisis.

Her term was instead dominated by massive democracy protests and Beijing’s subsequent crackdown, as well as a zero-Covid pandemic strategy that kept the city isolated while rivals reopened.

Hot Topics: Hong Kong’s Covid-19 rules tough pill to swallow

She is on track to depart at the end of June with the lowest approval ratings of any leader since the handover from Britain.

In her final policy address last October, Lam described Hong Kong as “much stronger than ever” after China intervened to ensure stability.

Her government survived the mass protest movement, but many say she failed to deliver on life improvement pledges – which even mainland China’s leadership says are at the heart of the city’s “deep-rooted social conflicts”.

Mass democracy demonstrations in 2019 and 2020 were met with a sweeping national security law that criminalised dissent. Photo: Sam Tsang

Record high number of people living below poverty line

Last year, 1.65 million Hongkongers were living below the government’s official poverty line, which for a one-person household means HK$4,400 (US$560) a month. This was the highest level since records began 12 years ago.

“The [poor] have been very neglected,” said Sze Lai-shan, deputy director of the Society for Community Organisation. “Sometimes it feels like [the government] is living on a different planet.”

Even pro-establishment figures have been unimpressed.

“You may say [Lam] has been working very hard, but little has been achieved in solving the deteriorating livelihood issues and Hong Kong’s deep-rooted conflicts,” senior Beijing adviser Lau Siu-kai said.

Explainer: One-fifth of Hongkongers live in poverty. Here’s what you need to know

Unsolved housing crisis

Last July, mainland China’s top official on Hong Kong affairs Xia Baolong gave a speech widely seen as a reflection of Beijing’s growing impatience with the housing crisis, something every leader since the 1997 handover has failed to solve.

The city, Xia said, must “say goodbye” to cage homes and the tiny shared flats where some 220,000 Hongkongers still dwell.

Hong Kong has long held the title of the world’s most unaffordable housing market. A study this year showed the median property price is 23 times the median household income.

Chan Chuen-buil is one of about 220,000 Hongkongers who live in tiny shared flats. Photo: Edmond So

Lam increased public housing supply, more than her predecessors, but demand still outstripped supply with the wait time increasing to six years.

Chan Kim-ching, a land-use researcher at the Liber Research Community, said Lam overly prioritised building flats to buy.

“By putting home ownership as the goal, it exacerbated the wealth inequality in society,” Chan said. “[Lam’s] policies do not target those in the greatest need.”

Why a mother in subdivided flat was charged HK$4,100 for utilities bill

Hongkongers emigrate amid political crackdown, zero-Covid measures

The last two years of Lam’s term also witnessed a historic outflow of people fleeing either the political crackdown or some of the world’s strictest pandemic controls.

The departures surged further this year when Hong Kong’s zero-Covid policy collapsed as the more transmissible Omicron variant broke through, killing more than 9,000 people, mostly under-vaccinated elderly.

A net 160,000 people departed Hong Kong in the first three months of the year.

Lam recently acknowledged that the curbs had caused a brain drain among foreign businesses, saying it was an “undeniable fact”.

Many are leaving Hong Kong for places like Britain, Canada and the United States. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Meanwhile, Beijing’s ongoing efforts to reshape Hong Kong’s political landscape sparked another emigration wave among locals.

After the 2019 protests were crushed, the central government imposed a sweeping national security law that criminalised dissent and transformed the once outspoken city.

Police arrested 182 people under the security law. Most of the city’s prominent democracy activists are either in jail or have fled overseas.

In the annual international press freedom chart released this week by Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong plummeted from 80th to 148th place.

Hot Topics: Is Hong Kong press freedom in free fall?

Frances Hui, an activist granted asylum in the United States, described Lam as an “obedient enforcer” of President Xi Jinping’s agenda.

“She accelerated the suppression of freedoms,” Hui said.

The Hong Kong diaspora is steadily growing in places like Britain, Canada and the United States.

“I didn’t expect that taking part in activism will lead to me having to seek asylum,” Hui said. “That’s a reflection of how far Hong Kong has fallen.”

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