Beijing’s choice John Lee now needs to woo the people

May 04, 2022 08:44
Photo: RTHK

Last week, former Chief Secretary John Lee, the sole candidate in the election this coming Sunday [May 8] for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive where the voters are the roughly 1,500 members of a China-dominated Election Committee, presented his election manifesto and promised to lead an efficient, pragmatic administration “that is result-oriented and solution-driven.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to travel to Hong Kong to swear in the new Chief Executive on July 1 and to celebrate 25 years of Chinese rule of the former British colony.

Lee’s entire 45-year career – minus the last nine months – has been focused on security. He joined the police force as a 19-year-old, giving up an offer to study engineering at the University of Hong Kong, apparently for financial reasons. Interestingly, all former Chief Executives, except shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, came from families of modest means.

Lee rose from probationary inspector in 1977 to deputy commissioner in 2010. He was then appointed undersecretary for security in 2012, five years later, he became the secretary.

Lee’s image as a hardliner reflected his actions as security chief, especially during the massive protests of 2019, triggered by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to push through a bill that would have allowed the extradition of fugitives in Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.

The protests paralyzed the Lam administration. The police force adopted increasingly aggressive means to maintain order.

Lee, as security secretary, defended police actions despite widespread charges of abuse of power.

Asked in the Legislative Council why officers of the Special Tactical Squad did not display their Police Unique Identification numbers, Lee said there was no room on their uniform to do so. Lack of such numbers made it difficult to identify abusive officers.

Beijing made its position clear on July 29, 2019 when the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office held the first of a series of hitherto rare briefings. A spokesman asserted that the central government “strongly supports the Carrie Lam-led Hong Kong government, and the police to enforce the law.”

Support by Beijing of the Hong Kong police was made clear repeatedly at subsequent briefings.

Beijing on June 30, 2020 imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, which targeted secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Lee’s job as security secretary was to implement that law. In August 2020, the United States sanctioned 11 Hong Kong and mainland officials, including Lee, for “undermining” the city’s autonomy.

In Beijing’s eyes, Lee was just the person Hong Kong needed. Last June, he was promoted to Chief Secretary, the number 2 official, when Matthew Cheung resigned.

Lam announced April 4 that she wouldn’t seek a second term. Lee quickly resigned to run for Chief Executive. China just as quickly made clear its support for Lee, thus ensuring no other candidates.

In his manifesto, Lee pledged to enact security legislation required under the Basic Law. The Tung administration shelved such a bill after half a million people protested.

Lee’s critics point to his narrowly focused security background and warn that he lacks experience in business and finance.

In response, the Lee campaign unveiled the names of supporters in the business community, including tycoon Li Ka-shing, property developer Allan Zeman who gave up Canadian nationality to become a Chinese citizen, and billionaire Peter Woo.

Lee has asserted his determination to keep Hong Kong as a financial center and business hub.

He is emphasizing social issues and has promised to reduce the waiting time for public housing.

Asked about political reform, Lee said on Sunday while greeting people in a wet market that he would not deal with that until all social issues have been resolved. Only when “society tells me all problems no longer exist,” he said, would he then turn to such issues as universal suffrage.

Clearly, Lee is seen by China as the right man for the job. However, the Hong Kong public hasn’t had a chance to assess him. It is significant that none of his predecessors served two full terms.

Lee has his work cut out for him. Now that he has won Beijing’s support, he needs to woo the Hong Kong public. If he produces satisfactory solutions to Hong Kong’s many social problems, it should lead to enhanced popular support. Then, five years from now if he runs for a second term, he may have the support of both Beijing and the Hong Kong people. After all, under the Basic Law, he is responsible to both Beijing and the Hong Kong people.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.