Beijing scouting for replacement for security chief John Lee

November 14, 2019 18:26
It is said that Secretary for Security John Lee is likely to be among the first batch of bureau chiefs to be eased out, according to the author. Photo: HKEJ

Last week, President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who also heads the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, voiced strong support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The firm backing given by state leaders for Lam has been interpreted by many political commentators as an attempt to debunk raging rumors that she would be replaced with an “interim” chief executive by March next year as the Financial Times reported recently.

As Xi spoke highly of Lam and her principal officials, some commentators believe that Lam and her bureau chiefs are likely to ride out the political crisis and be able to hang on to their jobs.

But although the central authorities have no immediate plans to overhaul the entire SAR administration, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have no “Plan B” on this critical issue.

It is understood that Beijing has already begun scouting for replacements for certain incumbent politically accountable SAR government officials through some “intermediaries”.

And it is said that Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu is likely to be among the first batch of bureau chiefs to be eased out.

As anyone who understands how the mainland officialdom works would know that while it is up to the chief executive to nominate his or her politically accountable officials, the final word on key appointments for the SAR administration always rests with Beijing.

As far as the post of secretary for security is concerned, a person familiar with the matter has said that even though Beijing does not have any plan to remove Lee from his office at the moment, it is now working to find the right and qualified person to fill Lee’s shoes when the time is ripe.

It is understood that these “intermediaries” sent by the central authorities have approached a number of incumbent heads of the disciplinary forces to find out if they would be willing to assume the position of the security chief, only to be declined by all of them.

According to a government figure, the Security Bureau no longer has any grip on the operation of the police force.

In fact, it is difficult for Lee himself and Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au Chi-kwong, both of whom used to hold high positions in the police force, to be seen having any big say on commanding the officers, ever since the outbreak of the civil unrest in June.

As police power has continued to expand unchecked over the last few months, consequently provoking a huge public backlash, it will certainly be a daunting task for the central authorities to find a suitable person who is willing to take up this “politically radioactive” job.

Meanwhile, a government figure has suggested that if Beijing is really determined to replace Lee, it should consider promoting heads from other disciplinary forces, or a civilian civil servant, to the position, rather than picking his successor within the police force again.

Over the years, there is a prevailing view among senior officials that allowing a high-ranking police chief to serve as the secretary for security would ensure better checks and balances and help bring the law enforcement into line, according to the government source.

Nevertheless, the continued expansion of police power and the increasing marginalization of the Security Bureau ever since the outbreak of the anti-extradition bill movement have already proven this notion wrong.

Another government figure said perhaps it is time for Beijing to install a civilian civil servant to lead the police in order to restore public faith in law enforcement.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.