By Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong real estate magnate Gordon Wu said an ambitious land reclamation project can help solve housing and social problems, while welcoming the enforcement of a national security law in the city as bringing stability to boost investment.
The 85-year-old billionaire chairman of Hopewell Holdings, who enjoys good ties with Beijing, said the Hong Kong government's 'Lantau Tomorrow' project, which will cover an area about a third of the size of Manhattan, will increase land supply and make housing more affordable.
"To compete with others, our government needs to think high tech and every development needs land," he told Reuters in a recent interview. "Our office prices can't be too expensive, and also the housing cost (must be affordable)."
That issue, he said, was at the root of anti-government protests in 2019 that culminated in the new security law. A long-time critic of the Hong Kong government's inability to solve housing problems, Wu said he has recently gained more confidence in the city's leader, Carrie Lam.
Lantau Tomorrow is estimated to cost at least HK$624 billion ($81 billion), or close to a quarter of the city's gross domestic product.
The Lantau project will in turn improve the city's competitiveness, said Wu, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be about $1.9 billion. The first batch of residents is currently expected to move there by 2034, but he believed the government could build the artificial islands faster than that if it acts with more determination.
He said the government's move earlier this month to take back three private land parcels near the border with Shenzhen, in a rural region known as the New Territories, and re-zone them for subsidised housing, was a step in the right direction.
"I saw (Carrie) Lam has started to do something ... it was unthinkable before that she would have such courage. She had not shown such determination until recently."
Hong Kong was ranked the world's least affordable housing market for the 11th straight year in 2020 by think-tanks Urban Reform Institute and Frontier Centre for Public Policy, based on median property prices and household incomes.
Princeton-educated Wu, an early investor in property and infrastructure projects across the Pearl River Delta in the late 1970s, escaped Chinese state media criticism of Hong Kong property tycoons during and since pro-democracy protests in 2019.
The coronavirus pandemic and a national security law imposed by China last year to punish what Beijing deems as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, effectively ended the often-violent protests.
Critics say the law undermines the city's freedoms, which form the bedrock for its success as a global financial hub.
"I know one thing will definitely kill Hong Kong, that's people throwing petrol bombs on the streets everyday ... people will not come to invest," said Wu. The executive was quoted in the China Daily state publication in 2019 as fearing "mobocracy".
"Stability is a must," Wu said in the interview, adding that China's backing made him very confident in Hong Kong markets.
Asked whether he supported Carrie Lam to run for a second term at the head of the Hong Kong government next year, Wu said it does not matter who becomes the next chief executive, as long as the person can solve housing problems, as that would lead to stability and improved living conditions.
"If you achieve both, you'll win the heart of the people."
(Reporting by Clare Jim; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Kenneth Maxwell)