Lee Will Be Beijing’s Man in Hong Kong
John Lee, Hong Kong’s former security chief, was confirmed as the city’s next chief executive with 99 percent of the votes from last Sunday’s election. Lee, a career police officer who rose to the highest echelons of the Hong Kong government ran unopposed in what critics call a “political farce.” As a hardliner approved by pro-China elites to carry out the orders of Beijing, Lee is expected to continue the assaults on political freedoms and civil liberties that have progressively eliminated space for dissent in Hong Kong, threatening its reputation as an international hub for commerce.
Sunday’s polls marked the first chief executive “elections” since Beijing’s overhaul of the city’s electoral system last year to ensure only “patriots” could run for public office in Hong Kong. The sweeping changes dramatically curtailed democratic representation in Hong Kong’s political system, reversing the democratic gains the city has made since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Though Beijing has swayed the outcome of previous elections for Hong Kong’s top job by directing votes toward its favored candidate, there was not even the illusion of a choice this year. Lee was handpicked by Beijing to be the sole candidate in a contest decided by a committee of 1,500 pro-Beijing political elites, or less than 0.02 percent of the city’s population of 7.5 million people. Under the new rules, the electors were also vetted by a panel chaired by Lee himself—a process designed to root out people deemed to be insufficiently loyal to the Hong Kong government. In the end, only eight people cast a “non-support” vote for Lee on Sunday.
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“Beijing clearly does not bother to pretend that this is an election in any sense of the word,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute, told VICE World News. “But Lee is not stupid and knows that he would have no credibility at all locally if he does not pretend to run for office, hence the charade.”
In a joint statement released Monday, the European Union and the foreign ministers of the G-7 countries expressed concerns about the selection process for Hong Kong’s new leader, describing it as part of “a continued assault on political pluralism and fundamental freedoms.” The statement decried changes to the electoral system that “are a stark departure from the aim of universal suffrage and further erode the ability of Hong Kongers to be legitimately represented.” The government of Hong Kong refuted that characterization in a statement of its own, accusing the EU and G-7 of “making up allegations contrary to facts and smearing with fallacies.”
As the former head of Hong Kong’s security bureau, Lee is best known for his role in leading the brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019. In the aftermath of those protests, he moved to crack down on dissent in the city with the draconian national security law imposed by Beijing the following year. “John Lee is the one that the central government knows the best, because he was in constant contact and interaction with the mainland,” pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien told AFP.
Lee’s competency and preparedness to be chief executive has also been called into question, given his lack of experience in any major policy areas besides security and law enforcement. Having served as the city’s No. 2 official over the past year, he is partly responsible for the city’s disastrous pandemic response that has led to rising fatalities from the coronavirus. Unlike his four predecessors, all of whom were either business figures or career civil servants with considerable administrative experience, Lee spent the majority of his professional career in the police force, having joined as a 19-year-old.
Lee was also on the list of officials from Hong Kong and mainland China who were sanctioned by Washington last year for working to undermine the city’s autonomy. As a result, YouTube suspended his campaign channel last month, citing a requirement to comply with the sanctions. And though he has promised to usher in a new chapter for Hong Kong, few are optimistic about the possibility of new beginnings after the upheavals of the past three years. It is clear to many in the city and beyond that Lee’s administration will serve at the pleasure of Beijing, rather than in the interests of Hong Kong’s citizens. “Choosing Lee as chief executive shows Beijing doesn’t mind picking a completely incapable person to do nothing but carry out its will,” Chung Kim-Wah, a polling expert from Hong Kong, told Vice World News.
Chung, an outspoken scholar and researcher, has twice been summoned by the national security police to assist with investigations—requests he rejected. Fearing that as a critic of the government he could be targeted by the state, he fled the city last month, joining a growing number of activists and intellectuals who have gone into exile. “My fear is that under his rule, things will go wrong in every aspect of Hong Kong,” he added, speaking of Lee.
Similarly, Kenneth Chan, a political scientist from Baptist University of Hong Kong, is pessimistic about life in Hong Kong under a Lee administration, arguing that his governing style, which emphasizes results over procedure, could lead to even less public participation in policymaking. “He’s determined to shut out democrats, to put pressure on civil society and to basically kill the entire issue of democratic reform in the coming five years,” Chan told AFP. “This is going to be a door shut very tightly.”
In Other News
Chinese officials are doubling down on their “Zero COVID” strategy, pledging in a meeting held last week to resolutely fight not only the virus, but also any questioning of the approach. The announcement has dashed whatever hopes may have existed of a gradual reopening of major Chinese cities, including Shanghai, where a government-mandated lockdown is now in its sixth week. And although the number of new infections in the city has been falling, authorities in several districts in Shanghai have since introduced even stricter measures. Some residents have been barred from venturing out of their apartments, even to pick up deliveries. In other neighborhoods, residents of entire buildings have been sent to centralized quarantine facilities after the detection of a single infection among their neighbors. Elsewhere in the country, millions of residents in smaller provinces remain under restricted conditions that have now become the norm since the onset of the pandemic.
Speaking in a press briefing Tuesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, called for a change in strategy, describing China’s pandemic response measures as “unsustainable.” A video clip of his remarks was removed by censors from China’s firewall-protected internet.
Worth a Read
For the New Yorker, Peter Hessler examines the cliched narrative of the nationalistic “Little Pinks”—or xiaofenhong in Mandarin—by exploring what truly drives China’s contemporary youth. Having spent some time in 1990s China working as a teacher, Hessler returned more than two decades later to find that his new cohort of students are not rabid ideologues, but “realists” and “old souls.” For all its flaws, China’s education system has “produced no small number of people who could observe and analyze, think and write,” Hessler argues. But the authoritarian state maintains its dominance by locking its young people in merciless competition with one another. As one of his students wrote in an essay about Chinese society, “If you are not good enough, you will be eliminated without a trace of pity.”
China Note-Taker is writing anonymously for reasons of personal security.