Hong Kong's next leader vows reboot but no zero-Covid exit timeline

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John Lee, a former top cop and security chief, is expected to be appointed Hong Kong's new chief executive by a committee of Beijing loyalists on May 8 (AFP/DALE DE LA REY) (DALE DE LA REY)

Hong Kong's next leader unveiled a manifesto Friday vowing to restore the business hub to its former glory but would not be drawn on when the city might discard zero-Covid controls that have left it internationally cut off.

John Lee, a former top cop and security chief, is expected to be appointed Hong Kong's new chief executive by a committee of some 1,500 Beijing loyalists on May 8.

He faces no competition but inherits a city that was convulsed by huge democracy protests followed by a crackdown on political freedoms and more than two years of pandemic curbs that have left residents and businesses isolated from the rest of the world.

"Covid is not going to live with us forever. At some stage it will be under control," Lee told reporters when asked when Hong Kong would reopen.

"It is important we do a good balancing act," he added.

China is the only major economy still sticking to a zero-tolerance strategy, even as the highly transmissible Omicron variant breaks through those defences and forces painful restrictions in both Hong Kong and on the mainland.

Hong Kong is at the tail end of a deadly Omicron wave that has killed some 9,000 residents and sparked an exodus among the city's business community.

Kristian Odebjer, chairman of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said businesses were crying out for clarity.

"The next few months are actually critical for Hong Kong, as decisive steps will be required in order to address the damage that has been inflicted during the fifth wave," he told AFP.

"It would be very helpful to hear an unambiguous statement from the top setting out a clear goal and timeline for how our city can be fully opened up for business again."

Michael Tien, a lawmaker and prominent business figure, said Lee -- like outgoing leader Carrie Lam -- will be caught between demands to restart travel with the mainland, which requires zero-Covid, and reopening internationally.

"Whether Lee will prioritise connecting with the mainland over the rest of the world, it's hard for me to predict," he told AFP.

- Housing and security -

Lee said Friday his 44-page manifesto will guide his attempt to restore Hong Kong's sheen when he takes over from Lam on July 1 -- the 25th anniversary of the city's handover to China by Britain.

But despite fronting a campaign with the slogan "Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together", Lee's policies so far indicate minimal change from the current Beijing-directed course.

Lee, 64, was a key figure in the suppression of the city's huge democracy protests and is among 11 top Hong Kong and Beijing officials sanctioned by the United States.

He vowed Friday that a host of new national security crimes would be created via local legislation, bolstering the already sweeping law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 to quash dissent.

Efforts to "cultivate a new generation that loves the country and Hong Kong" will continue, he added.

Lee pinpointed the chronic shortage of affordable housing as a key area his administration needed to tackle, something the four chief executives since the 1997 handover also prioritised but failed to solve.

Hong Kong has long held the title of the world's most unaffordable housing market, with a study this year showing the median property price is 23 times the median household income.

"After all the big debates on land use, it's time for execution," Lee said, vowing to build more housing and streamline land sales.

Lee's manifesto showed he plans to stick with two of his predecessor's multi-billion-dollar building projects -- a massive land reclamation scheme and a new city near the border with China.

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