Year in Review: Policies that shook Hong Kong in 2019

Hong Kong experienced a momentous year that affected all parts of its society. Harbour Times highlights the city’s top policy moments in 2019.

Photo: A protest on 15 September.

In 2019, Hong Kong policy became the centre of attention for the local population and beyond, making it a big year on the world stage for the Special Administrative Region. Changes affecting HK include legislative actions made by foreign actors as well as the local government. These decisions have had a significant impact this year that will continue to affect the city in the next decade.

The following is a list of the top policy developments in Hong Kong this year:

Minimum wage rise

Hong Kong’s minimum wage rose from HK$34.5 to $37.5 on 1 May, making the 8.7% increase the largest it has had since one was established in 2011. Some experts say it is still not enough to live a decent life in Hong Kong at the new rate. Others predict that this change will cause inflation and unemployment to rise by up to 0.1 and 0.3 percentage points respectively, expected to affect under 1,500 companies.

Vacancy tax

The Hong Kong government has progressed with The Rating (Amendment) Bill, introducing a tax that would be imposed on flats left empty for more than six months in order to prevent property hoarding. The government and market rates would determine the tax rate, which is proposed to be two years of rental income.

US-China Trade War

The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act is technically meant to protect Hong Kong from the effects of the trade war, but there has still been a noticeable impact on the city. According to Commerce Secretary Edward Yau, the issue has negatively affected the GDP, which saw no growth early this year. Although Presidents Trump and Xi claim to be arriving at a phase-one deal, HK will continue to experience trade war stresses until tariffs are lifted, which won’t happen until a deal is signed.

Policy Address

This year’s Policy Address was nothing short of unprecedented. Disruptions from opposition lawmakers forced Chief Executive Carrie Lam to leave the LegCo podium not once, but twice. The address was later released as a pre-recorded video online, which has never been done before.

Mrs. Lam targeted five major areas (Housing, Land Supply, Livelihood, Health, Economic Development) where the government aims to implement policies in the coming year. She blamed the protests and ongoing trade war for Hong Kong’s slowed economic growth, and made no mention of the protest movements’ five demands nor any planned efforts to address the city’s unrest.

Harbour Times gives a detailed recap of the Policy Address on this Twitter thread.

The Extradition Law (and everything that followed)

This last one needs no introduction (but here is a refresher, just in case): The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, colloquially known as the extradition law, brought protesters out to the streets in thousands – even over a million. This legislation triggered a response that has unfolded into months of unrest, stretching beyond the initial qualms against the bill to advocating for the five demands of the pro-democracy movement. 

Other government decisions since the social situation began have had a significant effect on public life in Hong Kong. Several notable events that occurred as a result of the extradition law protests are chronologically listed below.

  • 4 September: After a summer of protests, many of which turned violent, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition law. Until then, the bill had been shelved on 15 June after the widespread expressions of public discontent. 
  • 5 October: The government implemented a colonial era Emergency Regulations Ordinance in order to pass a ban prohibiting people from concealing their identities during all public assemblies. The law was deemed unconstitutional in November, and a full appeal hearing for the case will commence in January.
  • 1 November: The High Court granted a temporary injunction order lasting from 1-15 November that banned anyone from posting or circulating content that “promotes, encourages or incites the use of threat or violence”. This triggered Hongkongers’ concerns of Internet freedoms and sliding down a slippery slope into censorship akin to that of China’s. The court ordered the extension of the injunction with “slightly amended” terms.
  • 27 November: One week after passing through US Congress, Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This bill permits an annual review of HK’s special trade status and place sanctions against officials. Italy has followed suit by passing a resolution formally supporting the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to policy in Hong Kong. For the full picture, subscribe to High Tide: Harbour Times Daily Briefing.

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the author

Jasmine Lee is writer, commentator, and journalist. She graduated from McGill University where she took numerous opportunities to study and work around the world. Her specific areas of interest include media studies and human rights.