Is John Lee a leader who can reunite Hong Kong?

April 28, 2022 09:49
John Lee Ka-chiu (Photo: Xinhua)

Now that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s single term as chief executive is ending, many lessons must be learned from her failed leadership. The person who needs to learn them most is her successor John Lee Ka-chiu. Whether or not he does will define his leadership.

Hongkongers have no right to elect the chief executive. A so-called Election Committee of 1,500 Beijing loyalists vote to elect a leader already chosen by Beijing. Lee is Beijing’s choice. He is also the only candidate, which means he is guaranteed victory.

The people cannot change this charade but they should at least deserve a chief executive who understands what Hongkongers want from their leader. Lam never understood that. She governed as if only she knew what’s best for the people.

I don’t expect Lee to admit Lam was a tragedy for Hong Kong but I hope he should keep this in mind if he wants to heal the divisive societal wounds Lam inflicted.

Those wounds are deep. To heal them requires reaching out to all Hongkongers, not just so-called patriots. I hope Lee dares to do that and to tell Beijing the post-reunification governance style has failed.

Lee is assured of a trouble-free rule simply because Beijing, through Lam, has decimated the opposition with arrests, disqualification of legislators, and the use of strong-arm tactics to shut down pro-democracy media outlets. The so-called patriots who now fill the legislature know they must toe the line of the Beijing-backed Lee.

People I talk to mockingly say it makes no difference whether it’s Lam or Lee. They say all Beijing’s choices for leader have failed the people. They believe Lee, a former policeman, will turn Hong Kong into a police state. Lee needs to prove them wrong if he really wants to reunite society.

Lee’s campaign slogan is “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together”. That’s as unimaginative as Lam’s “We Connect” slogan when she ran for chief executive in 2017. Her inability to connect with the people made that slogan a joke.

She tore Hong Kong apart with her now-dead extradition bill but had no exit strategy when millions opposed it. Her abysmal handling of the latest coronavirus outbreak caused record infections and deaths. She is the least popular post-handover leader.

A top government official once told me Lam is a capable number two but is not chief executive quality. Another senior official told me Lam is not a leader who listens to different opinions after she ignored even some in her inner circle who opposed the extradition bill.

I first met Lam when she was the development secretary. When she became chief secretary, and then chief executive, she often came to my TV shows. But we never developed the kind of relaxed association I had with her predecessors Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Leung Chun-ying. She lacks the human touch to do that.

I had no problem at first with Lam replacing Leung as chief executive. Even though I knew Leung better I had hoped Lam would unite Hongkongers after Leung’s divisive rule. How wrong I was.

I saw her in a new light when she ignored the estimated one million Hongkongers who protested peacefully in June 2019 against her extradition bill. It became clear to me she was a failed leader when she refused to budge even after an estimated two million protested peacefully a week later.

I am now in the US but still love the city I was born in. I am sure most Hongkongers, including many in the establishment camp, were as relieved as I was when Lam decided not to seek a second term.

People who know her or have worked with her know of her bossy arrogance. I have been at the receiving end of her arrogance several times when she lectured me at public functions about my columns criticizing her.

At one function she described my columns as nonsense. When I asked her to explain what she meant she stared icily at me and asked me to re-read my own columns. A leader who cannot tolerate criticism can never earn the people’s respect.

Many Hongkongers will remember her for ruining their lives. Over 10,000 mostly young people are either in jail or under arrest because of her extradition bill. This would not have happened had she heeded the millions who marched peacefully against the bill.

I do not know Lee well but if he really wants a new chapter for Hong Kong he should ask why so many, especially young people have turned against the government. Blaming foreign forces without proof will not heal the rift.

An inquiry into the 2019 social unrest will do much to start a new chapter but I know that will not happen. An amnesty for protesters who didn’t use violence would help but it’s a pity that won’t happen too.

The Hong Kong I knew where people dared speak their mind is gone. Lee needs to acknowledge and change this fact if he truly wants to start a new chapter for Hong Kong together. By together does he mean even those with opposing voices? Campaign slogans are meaningless unless honestly acted on.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.