HONG KONG -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced plans to create a new "metropolis" of up to 2.5 million people near the border with mainland China, looking to tie the former British colony closer to neighboring cities to boost regional development and tackle a chronic housing shortage.
In the fifth and final annual policy address of her term on Wednesday, Lam defended the national security law and political overhaul imposed by Beijing in the wake of widespread antigovernment protests in 2019, emphasizing the need to strengthen pride in and loyalty to China for Hong Kong's long-term prosperity.
"The double safeguards of the National Security Law and the improved electoral system of the HKSAR have ushered in a new era whereby it is time for us to strive ahead with renewed perseverance and plan for the future of Hong Kong," she said, referring to the city's formal status as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The new "Northern Metropolis" would cover nearly 300 sq. km along the city's border with Shenzhen. Envisaged as an international information and technology hub, it would include up to 926,000 apartments and a new rail link to Shenzhen's Qianhai district.
Hong Kong's population was 7.39 million as of June 30, down 1.2% from a year earlier amid an exodus of residents concerned about the security law's impact on schools and other institutions as well as the city's strict COVID travel controls.
Beijing last month announced plans to expand the area of the Qianhai zone, where it has been experimenting with financial and other reforms, by eight times to boost integration with Hong Kong.
Beijing has grouped Shenzhen and Hong Kong with Macao, Guangzhou and seven other nearby mainland cities as part of its Greater Bay Area development plan. It launched a program for cross-border sales of wealth management products across the region, partly with an eye toward boosting international usage of the yuan.
"The whole Greater Bay Area is trying to work together, consolidating its strength in a number of sectors," said Shen Jianfa, a geography professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong is strong in international finance and Shenzhen's strength is in innovation, technology and production," he said. "If it [the Northern Metropolis plan] is successful, Hong Kong will become a stronger financial center."
Lam's focus on housing on Wednesday included plans to increase land supply by reviewing zones around countryside parks for development and relaxing rules on sale of rural clan-held lands. She said 96,500 homes will be completed by the end of her five-year term next June, with plans advancing for construction of 480,000 public and private housing units over the next decade.
Hong Kong is one of the world's most unaffordable cities. Beijing sees the high cost of private apartments as a root cause of the city's political tensions and social problems, with waiting times for public housing driven up to nearly six years.
Hannah Jeong, head of Hong Kong advisory services for property consultancy Colliers, said the Northern Metropolis would be "positive news" for the city's housing supply, but questioned how achievable it will be.
"We have to evaluate the feasibility of being able to deliver such game-changing numbers," she said, noting only four of 15 residential sites identified in Lam's address last year had so far been brought to sale.
Researcher Brian Wong of independent think tank Liber Research Community, worries the Northern Metropolis plan could backfire as a housing solution.
"These [policies] are increasing cross-border movement, and it automatically creates more housing demand when you are bringing people in," he said.
Although the national security law quashed dissent, with dozens of opposition politicians locked up or driven into exile and many civic organizations compelled to disband, Lam said the city would develop draft legislation against treason and other offenses not covered by last year's law, as well as tackling "fake news" and cybersecurity.
She said public broadcaster RTHK will also play a more active role in nurturing a sense of national identity. Previously independent in its news coverage, RTHK has been forced to rebroadcast more programs from China's state channels and focus on the city government's patriotic agenda.
Lam also proposed a number of changes to the government's structure, including setting up a new Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau.