John Lee’s candidacy for Hong Kong GM signals Beijing maintaining tight control

HONG KONG – John Lee was not seen as a natural leader for most of the nearly four decades he served in Hong Kong’s police force.

Former colleagues have described him as withdrawn, pensive and calm. At lunch, Lee ate his homemade sandwiches alone in the office, according to former officers. In a profession known for its boisterous camaraderie, he was serious and “not particularly pleasant,” said one of Lee’s former colleagues.

It is precisely these characteristics, analysts say, that make the city’s former top security official, now 64, China’s ideal choice as Hong Kong’s next chief executive. He oversaw a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2019, helped roll out the new national security law, and is now trusted to follow and implement — not lead — in territory tightly controlled by Beijing. He is, so far, the only candidate approved by China to stand for election on May 8.

Lee has a history of defending, championing and promoting Hong Kong’s most controversial laws and looks poised to further erode civil society, independent media and the few remnants of the opposition. Lee is also an official under US sanctions, and his candidacy shows Beijing shrugging off outside criticism. “As far as image…it doesn’t matter,” said Ho-fung Hung, a Hong Kong political expert and professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.

A telling summary of Lee’s appeal was telegraphed this week by that city’s pro-Beijing camp. Lo Man-tuen, vice-president of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, wrote in a local newspaper that the candidate from Beijing “must be an ‘iron man'” who can “unhesitatingly apply the national security law without hesitation”.

Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the semi-official Chinese Association for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Lee’s greatest strength was his “coldness and courage” during the 2019 unrest. Without “tangle of interest groups”, it will be “conducive [for Lee] to fulfill its responsibilities to the central people’s government,” Lau said in an interview this week.

From inspector to number 2 in Hong Kong

In 1977, Lee, then 20, joined the then British-ruled Hong Kong police as a trainee inspector. He came through the force, becoming deputy commissioner in 2010. He was passed over for the commissioner job, several former colleagues said. In 2012, Lee joined the government under former hardline chief executive Leung Chun-ying.

In 2017, chief executive Carrie Lam promoted Lee to security secretary — a move that set him on a path to uphold and help China’s ambitions to rein in independent-minded Hong Kong. He then traveled to Xinjiang and reported to lawmakers that any counterterrorism measures he had seen there were “humane” and “worth studying” experiences for Hong Kong. (Human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority are extensively documented there, and the State Department has determined that they constitute genocide.)

In early 2019, Lee helped Lam promote a controversial bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. The legislation sparked anti-government protests that drew millions, the biggest challenge to the Communist Party on Chinese soil since the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. Lee oversaw the crackdown in which officers were seen repeatedly violating internal rules on the use of force.

No government officers or officials have been held responsible for wrongdoing or investigated in relation to the protests. In August 2020, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Lee, Lam and nine other Hong Kong and Mainland officials for “restricting Hong Kong citizens’ freedom of speech or assembly”.

Last June, Beijing appointed Lee as its new chief secretary, Hong Kong’s second-highest political post. He became the first police officer to assume this role. A representative from the chief secretary’s office said he could not comment on Lee’s behalf since he resigned to run for chief executive.

The official against the officer

By choosing Lee, Beijing effectively sidelined the Hong Kong civil service. Two of Hong Kong’s four chief executives, including Lam, come from the service, a legacy of British colonial rule that for decades formed the backbone of government and marked a key difference between Hong Kong and China. This civil service structure made Hong Kong attractive to Western businesses and cemented its status as a financial center.

The selection of a former police officer instead of a civil servant underscores that “Beijing believes candidates from disciplined departments are more reliable because they show greater political loyalty,” said Ivan Choy Chi-keung. , a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to institutions such as the police, correctional services and fire departments.

Lam leaves behind the legacy of a much more polarized society. Critics say Lam’s failures in Hong Kong are the product of arrogance and pride and an inability to listen to voters. With Lee, personality is secondary.

“It is not important that [he] is down to earth, humble or not,” said Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker and associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “What matters most is that Lee is a Beijing-appointed cadre…As long as he can serve his master well, HK’s pro-establishment side will not have a voice that strays far from hers.”

Hung, from Johns Hopkins University, said he expected “the gradual erosion of the spirit of professionalism in Hong Kong across all sectors of society to continue or even accelerate.”

“John Lee or not, I think the direction is pretty clear,” he said.

Hong Kong, under the terms of its handover to China in 1997, was promised autonomy with “the people of Hong Kong ruling Hong Kong”. Representative elections are the end goal of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. This race, however, has only one real candidate.

As in previous years, the next chief executive will be selected in May by a hand-picked panel of around 1,500 political and business elites known as the election committee. There is only one candidate approved by Beijing, according to Lau and local media citing sources.

The opposition is in prison. Hong Kong authorities want his “patriots-only” election to look legitimate.

Last year, Beijing overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system and clarified that only “patriots” – those loyal to the Communist Party – could run. The changes reduced the number of elected seats in the legislature, tightened the rules on who is eligible and changed the representation of the committee that chooses the chief executive.

Indeed, at the time Lee declared his candidacy this week, the new rule guaranteed that he would be sworn in on July 1. It is also the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong and the halfway point of the “one country, two systems” arrangement. “Beijing wants to send the message that Hong Kong can never deviate from the rails [it] designed,” said Chan, the former lawmaker.

On Wednesday, Lee offered insight into his approach. In a six-minute announcement of his candidacy, he said the opportunity “to serve the people of Hong Kong is a glory.”

“I will inform you of my next move in detail,” he said, then immediately left the podium, leaving behind a group of reporters.

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