Beijing wants Hong Kong tycoons like Li Ka-shing to help young people access cheaper housing. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing has endorsed a plan for action on the housing crisis in Hong Kong, which is increasingly seen as a key root cause of protests that have wracked the city for more than three months.

It has backed a proposal by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a pro-mainland political party, to make full use of powers and rights granted to the government under the Lands Resumption Ordinance to expropriate private land to boost supply, particularly plots for public rental units.

An opinion piece in The People’s Daily on Friday, which was widely shared by news portals and on social media, said Hong Kong’s perennial housing woes were caused by “developers defending their vested interests” to stall land production plans or fight efforts to curb runaway property prices – and this had in turn fanned people’s mistrust of the authorities.

“Many apolitical young people became disillusioned and were then instigated to take to the streets to protest against the government. The underlying reason is their hopelessness, like owning a home… Hong Kong should wait no more,” the piece concluded. It echoed calls to shake up the city’s operating systems, which appear skewed towards the well-off.

The article noted that taking back land from private owners – in most cases chunks owned by developers but which have been laid bare for years – is a delicate “rebalancing act” between private property rights and public interests. But it said the city’s Basic Law has a specific clause regarding compensation when a person is deprived of land or home, which says it must correspond to the real current value of the property.

“For the sake of the public and livelihood, it is high time that realty developers showed sincerity and goodwill, when in the past they raked it in by hoarding plots and dictating prices… They should reflect on themselves on how to shoulder their responsibilities for Hong Kong and genuinely ‘give a way out’ for youngsters,” the op-ed said.

‘Extreme capitalist system’

Meanwhile, Hu Xijin, the chief editor of the Global Times, a tabloid under the People’s Daily umbrella, also lashed out at Hong Kong’s “extreme capitalist system” and said the government’s lack of intervention and its political opponents were making livelihood issues worse.

Having visited grassroots families and witnessed their plight living in the city’s notorious subdivided flats and even “cage homes”, Hu argued in his column that the entire nation should pool resources and efforts to prod and help Hong Kong solve its housing crisis.

“The central government would have long acted on [the housing and livelihood problems], if Hong Kong was a mainland city,” Hu claimed.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam also promised this week to focus on housing and jobs in a bid to try to end the unrest. In a Facebook post, Lam said her government would boost the supply of homes. “Housing and people’s livelihoods are the main priorities. The government will add to housing supply measures which will be continuously put in place and not missed.”

‘Allow them a way out’

The People’s Daily report, meanwhile, suggested developers such as Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, could have done a lot more to help poor people in the city get affordable housing.

Indeed, the remarks are a sharp rebuke of Li, who made a rare appearance at a monastery in the city last weekend, where he appealed to the government to “allow a way out” for the city’s disenfranchised and dissenting youth.

Li, who is 91 and has a net worth of at least US$40 billion, made comments that were captured on video by visitors at the Buddhist convent. He told people that Hong Kong was in its most precarious moment since the World War II and that the protracted turmoil sweeping the city for over three months must be stopped.

He called on young protesters venting their anger on the streets to focus on the big picture and reconcile themselves to reality for the sake of Hong Kong, and urged the government to also “allow a way out” for the young, saying they will be future leaders of the city.

Li Ka-shing appeals to the government to ‘allow a way out’ for youngsters protesting on the streets. Photo: Facebook

Predictably, the business mogul’s advice – indeed, little more than saying ‘stop it’ – fell on deaf ears as Hong Kong lurched into another day of mass rallies and vandalism by young, radical protesters.

Li and Lee

Li has appeared to be slow to help government moves to alleviate the city’s housing crisis and his lack of action compares unfavorably with other local realty tycoons.

Lee Shau-kee – Hong Kong’s second-richest tycoon, who founded Henderson Land Development – has made an effort to escape public ire by token donation of some plots to the government so it could build hostels and rental units for fresh graduates and job-starters.

Tenement blocks flank an alley in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok. The city is infamous for its sky-high property prices and cramped living spaces. Photo: Asia Times

An old public housing estate in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town. Some flats there are barely bigger than a prison cell. Photo: Asia Times

Li Ka-shing’s ties with Beijing are also on the wane. He has been censured by the Chinese media after his perceived divestment from the mainland and unwinding of his property assets there in 2015, plus recent major corporate purchases in the UK.

The billionaire used to visit Zhongnanhai regularly during Deng Xiaoping’s rule, as well as the presidency of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But he has been shunned by Xi Jinping, who has not met Li one-on-one, and Li’s property arm has not bought land north of the border since 2012, the year Xi came into power.

A file photo of Li with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Photo: Handout
Li put ads in several papers in late August condemning violence. But to Beijing, it took Li more than two months to take a stand and pledge allegiance. Photo: Facebook

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