On Sunday, ballots will be cast for Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The result is not in doubt, as there is only one candidate: John Lee.
In the 25 years since Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule, political freedoms and civil rights that Beijing once promised would be preserved have instead been rolled back. A former police officer and security chief, Mr. Lee will take power in a Hong Kong nearly unrecognizable from even a decade ago. That he is the man chosen by Beijing for this moment suggests an intention to transform it even further.
Mr. Lee was born in 1957, as Hong Kong was evolving into an industrial and financial powerhouse. He came of age in a territory separate from but deeply affected by mainland China.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, millions fled political turmoil in the new People’s Republic and in 1967, when Mr. Lee was 10, some of the chaos spilled over into Hong Kong. Worker protests – co-opted by Maoist groups and cheered on by Chinese state media – exploded into riots that eventually left more than 50 people dead, killed in bombings or shot by police.
The force’s handling of the unrest earned a special commendation from the Queen, so it was the Royal Hong Kong Police that Mr. Lee joined in 1977, a moniker it would keep until the city’s handover two decades later.
“This was a critical period of transformation both in Hong Kong’s history and that of the police,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
At the start of the decade, the public image of the force “was just that it was utterly rotten and corrupt,” Mr. Tsang said, but a sustained anti-corruption drive meant that by the 1980s, Hong Kong police were beginning to be known as “Asia’s finest.”
When half a million people took to the streets in support of prodemocracy demonstrations in China in 1989, officers could be seen directing traffic and handing out water, in stark contrast to the military crackdown that would follow in Beijing.
“That really established credibility for the police in the community,” Mr. Tsang said.
Mr. Lee rose quickly through the ranks. By the time China’s flag went up over the city in July, 1997, he had been promoted to chief superintendent. After the handover, he built strong connections with mainland authorities in Guangdong through a series of investigations targeting cross-border crime. He became deputy commissioner in 2010, before resigning two years later to join the government of Leung Chun-ying, as undersecretary for security.
Like Mr. Leung – a former surveyor – Mr. Lee is what passes in Hong Kong for a political outsider, having not spent his entire career in the often rigid civil-service bureaucracy or building links to the tycoons who dominate business in the city.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, said it was important to Beijing that Mr. Lee did not come from the same Administrative Officers Grade as current leader Carrie Lam and former chief executive Donald Tsang.
“Members of this exclusive elite corps used to ‘monopolize’ the top positions in the government,” Mr. Lau wrote last month. “However, in Beijing’s judgment, this corps is too elitist, conservative, cautious and timid. Moreover, as experience shows, its allegiance to the motherland and Beijing is not steadfast enough.”
Mr. Tsang disagreed with the idea that Mr. Lee is any kind of outsider, pointing out that as a career police officer, “he’s just from a different part of the inside.”
Ms. Lam’s mishandling of protests that broke out over a proposed extradition bill in 2019 resulted in often violent unrest that gripped the city for months, tanking the economy and prompting a furious Beijing to impose a national-security law the following year, bypassing Hong Kong’s government and legislature to do so.
A further bungling of a spike in coronavirus cases this year ended Ms. Lam’s hopes to become the first chief executive to serve two full terms, and may have also poisoned any outstanding good feelings Beijing had about Hong Kong bureaucratic skill.
Mr. Lee played a key role in both of these crises: as security secretary in 2019, pushing for both the extradition bill and the heavy-handed suppression of protests, and as Ms. Lam’s deputy during the recent COVID-19 outbreak.
Indeed, Mr. Lee’s handling of the 2019 unrest – for which he was sanctioned by the United States – is likely what secured him the top job today. Mr. Lau said that the former security secretary displayed “superb performance” during this period.
In one of his first statements as deputy leader, Mr. Lee wrote that the “violent riots that had taken place in Hong Kong since June, 2019 … had the more profound consequences of ruining people’s law-abidingness and breeding homegrown terrorism.”
According to Mr. Lau, concerns over national security will continue to dominate Beijing’s view of Hong Kong, even as protests and anti-government activity have largely disappeared in the wake of the security law.
“Beijing expects intensified efforts by the United States and its allies to contain China and weaken Hong Kong’s value to the rise of China,” he said.
Mr. Lee is expected to fill his cabinet with other figures from the security services, something Mr. Tsang said would necessarily result in a different style of government.
“If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he said.
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