Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) insisted yesterday that economic development would remain the city's top priority in an annual address that skirted the issues of pollution and democracy.
In his first policy address since winning re-election in March, the chief executive said improving the city's environment or maintaining its heritage -- another campaign popular among activists -- had to take a backseat.
"I will insist on promoting economic development as our primary goal," he told legislators. "The reason is simple. Without economic prosperity, people cannot make a decent living and all visions are just empty talk."
The city has been blighted in recent years by severe pollution, which some business groups say is harming their ability to attract senior managers and compromising Hong Kong's position as an international finance center.
While Tsang conceded Hong Kong should "do our part to improve the regional environment," he made limited commitments.
He promised to reduce energy intensity -- energy consumed per unit of GDP -- by 25 percent by 2030 and submit to a government carbon audit to "set an example" to the business community.
A levy on plastic bags will also be introduced alongside measures to reduce sulphur emissions.
Hong Kong has also seen increasing public protests against the destruction of several historic landmarks for new developments, including the Star Ferry terminal.
Tsang said the government should aim to ensure that such buildings would be reused, rather than simply torn down.
He made no firm promises on bringing in full voting rights, guaranteed in the "Basic Law" introduced when this territory was returned to Beijing by Britain in 1997.
A controversial three-month consultation on democracy ended yesterday and Tsang said he would study its findings before making his recommendation to Beijing.
"[Hong Kong residents] are well aware that implementing the universal suffrage is a complicated social exercise [that] will have far-reaching implications on Hong Kong's long-term stability and prosperity," he said.
Tsang was re-elected in a run-off against a pro-democracy candidate earlier this year in which voting was limited to a select group of business and mainly pro-Beijing elites.
Announcing both personal and business tax cuts, he said the special administrative region had enjoyed an average annual growth of 7.7 percent between 2004 and last year, showing its economy was "back on track" after the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003.
A string of major infrastructure projects would form the backbone to future growth, including a road bridge between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai, Tsang said.
The 10 projects, which also include new underground and train lines, are expected to boost the economy by more than HK$100 billion (US$12.9 billion) a year when finished and create 250,000 jobs.
The 63-year-old added that greater attention should be paid to the needs of the poor. Despite the territory's booming economy, more than 20 percent of the population live in poverty, more than double the number two decades ago.
"I will insist that development brings about social harmony, with different strata of people sharing the fruits," he said.