Updated: 01/15/2014 16:53 | By Agence France-Presse

Hong Kong leader vows to tackle rising poverty

Hong Kong's leader Wednesday announced plans to tackle rising poverty in a policy speech that largely skirted the burning issue of universal suffrage for the Chinese territory amid growing public discontent with his administration.

Hong Kong leader vows to tackle rising poverty

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying looks on during a press conference after his 2014 policy address in Hong Kong on January 15, 2014

There is considerable anger in Hong Kong about rising inequality, a lack of action on granting citizens full voting rights and resentment over Beijing's perceived influence in the city.

In his second policy address Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced a raft of welfare policies including a scheme to help the working poor.

"The current-term government is determined to tackle the poverty problem," Leung said.

"This...will incur a substantial amount of additional recurrent expenditure. It demonstrates the determination of the current-term Government to tackle the root of the entrenched problems in our society," Leung said.

But Beijing-appointed Leung gave little detail on how the city's future leaders will be chosen under a long-awaited political reform other than to state that Hong Kong was "moving towards universal suffrage". 

The government opened a long-awaited public consultation last month on ways to elect the city's future leader, amid growing fears increased intervention by China will prevent genuine political reform.

Despite boasting a substantial wealthy elite, many Hong Kongers live in cramped conditions scraping by on comparatively small incomes. 

In September the semi-autonomous territory found almost 20 percent of its residents live in poverty after setting its first benchmark to measure the problem in seven million strong city.

Under one HK$3 billion ($390 million) a year scheme announced Wednesday some 700,000 people from low-income families will receive extra subsidies. 

Working families with incomes equal or below half the city's median monthly domestic household income (currently HK$22,000) will be eligible for an allowance of up to HK$1,000 a month.

The scheme, which the government plans to implement in 2015, will also provide an additional monthly allowance of HK$800 for each child.

In a city with a severe housing shortage, Leung said the government would do its "utmost" to increase housing supply and set a target to provide 470,000 units in the coming decade with public housing accounting for 60 percent.

He said more than half of private domestic units only have a "saleable area of less than 50 square metres (538 square foot)", and described how some young couples could not afford to buy a home after they married. 

"They go to work during the day, have dinner together in a restaurant, and then separately return to the homes of their respective parents," he said.

Analysts said the welfare policies could help lift his flagging approval ratings, which stand at 45.6 percent, according to a January survey by the Hong Kong University.

"By giving out different kinds of subsidies to the lower classes, I think it would be an expedient method of rescuing his (Leung's) popularity," Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of Government & Public Administration professor Ma Ngok told AFP.

Little concrete reform offers

But throughout the policy address, political reform, a topic which sparks regular mass street demonstrations, was only briefly touched upon.

"At this moment, he doesn't have a lot of concrete things to offer," Ma said, referring to the issue of political reform.

Leung also said a new Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum would be introduced to help support ethnic minority students.

There are currently 60,000 south Asian ethnic minority people living in the city, an increase of 50 percent over the past decade, many of whom struggle with their education because of language problems. 

Dozens of people from multiple groups staged a protest outside the government headquarters before Leung delivered his speech, some holding pictures of a turtle shell and Leung's picture, shouting "Don't hide like a turtle, Leung".

"The government has said that giving low income families subsidies is their duty but what we can see is that they just keep on proposing and planning, there is nothing (happening) at this moment," Kalvin Ho, a 25-year-old community development officer, told AFP.

Leung's two-hour speech was interrupted twice by radical lawmakers who called him a liar before they were escorted out of the Legislative Council chamber. 

The 59-year-old politician took office in July after he was picked by a 1,200-member election committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites, amid rising anger over what many perceive to be China's meddling in local affairs.

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