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John Lee’s bid for Hong Kong leader signals Beijing’s ‘hard line’

John Lee, who spent decades in the police before joining the political administration and was a key player in Hong Kong’s democracy crackdown, is set to be appointed the city’s top leader following a rubber-stamp election next month.

Lee formally submitted his bid on Wednesday after securing enough nominations and is the only candidate in the running for chief executive, the highest-ranking local leadership position in the Chinese territory.

Until April 6, Lee held the post of Chief Secretary of Administration, the city’s number two spot, but resigned so he would qualify as a candidate to replace the current Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who said last week that she would not run for a second term.

Unlike Lam, a career civil servant who has overseen issues like housing, health, and trade, Lee’s background is law and order.

After announcing his run, he told reporters that his term in office would offer “a new symphony” with him as the “conductor”.

Lee joined the Hong Kong police force in 1977 according to his government biography and rose through the ranks to become Assistant Commissioner of Police in 2003. Between 2012 and 2021, he served as both Under Secretary for Security and then Secretary for Security before he was appointed to his most recent post in 2021.

As a former police officer, he also stands outside Hong Kong’s political establishment, a significant selling point for Beijing, said one former lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Past chief executives like Tung Chee-hwa and CY Leung had deep ties to the business community, while Donald Tsang and Lam both rose through the colonial civil service before taking on more senior roles after the United Kingdom returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.

Police arrest a Hong Kong protester after a Chinese flag was removed from a flag pole at a rally in support of Xinjiang Uighurs'' human rights in Hong Kong, China, December 22, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicho
The policing of the 2019 protests prompted calls for an investigation into alleged police brutality [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Lee, by contrast, does not have a “local power base,” the former legislator said, but at the same time has enough savvy to secure the support of Beijing. Under the terms of Hong Kong’s new elections laws, which were introduced last year, only politically-vetted “patriots” can run for office.

Lee’s professional experience and his ability to withstand criticism also make him an ideal candidate for Beijing, according to experts. He came to international attention during the mass protests in 2019 as the face of the local government during regular press briefings.

The 2019 protests were triggered by a deeply unpopular plan to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws and allow suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial, but they quickly snowballed into city-wide demonstrations for more democratic rights.

Throughout the 2019 turmoil, Lee’s press briefings displayed a “staunch expressionless defence of the proposed legislation” despite mounting domestic and international pressure, said Suzanne Pepper, a longtime Hong Kong resident and political scientist.

Lee’s leadership style should be much the same, she said, characterised as “no nonsense, letter-of-the-law, seemingly without consideration or much deference owed to dissenting opinions raised, regardless of the questions and uncertainties created for the general public.”

A slow change in Hong Kong policing

As Hong Kong’s top policeman and then head of the security bureau, Lee also ushered in a new era for the police force beginning in 2014, said Anna Kwok, a strategy and operations associate at the Hong Kong Democracy Council in the United States.

That year saw two key events in how police dealt with protesters, first during demonstrations against development in the New Territories district and then during the Umbrella Movement democracy protests.

In both cases, police began to charge protesters  – rather than arrest and release – and use considerably more force than before, Kwok said.

As Secretary for Security, Lee also visited Xinjiang province in late 2018, where China is accused of a brutal campaign to suppress the mostly Muslim ethnic Uighur minority, placing more than 1 million people in internment camps it has said are necessary to stop ‘extremism’.

“When he came back, he actually claimed that he has learned a lot from Xinjiang in terms of the anti-terrorism mechanisms and the experience,” Kwok said. “He also explicitly said it was something for Hong Kong to learn from.”

Even so, prior to 2019, Hong Kong’s police force was a mostly respected arm of the local government, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

Under Lee, however, it transformed “into the most despised and hated institution in a few weeks in 2019” thanks to its aggressive tactics against protesters, he said.

These tactics included tackling protesters and also using rubber bullets and tear gas to control crowds.

Tsang says Lee’s policing track record is more worrying than his lack of experience as an administrator.

“For Beijing to pick someone with such a track record shows that Beijing’s priority is making sure there is no dissent articulated in [Hong Kong], over everything else,” he told Al Jazeera by email.

A security administration

After the 2019 protests came to an end, Lee took on a new role in mid-2020, overseeing Hong Kong’s national security legislation as a member of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security.

Since the national security legislation was imposed in June 2020, Hong Kong police have arrested 183 people, according to a database compiled by China File. Of these, 113 have been charged with crimes like subversion or “seditious” speech.

Much of Hong Kong’s small but vibrant political opposition has either been jailed or forced to emigrate for their role in the 2019 protests. In total, Hong Kong police arrested 47 of the city’s top activists and leaders on charges like subversion, the majority of whom have spent a year in pre-trial detention.

Many commentators also believe the legislation has brought a premature end to “one country, two systems”, the framework under which Beijing pledged to govern Hong Kong after the handover and ensure it would enjoy rights and freedoms unknown on the mainland until at least 2047.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, second right, poses with Chief Secretary John Lee on the day he was promoted to No. 2 in June 2021
John Lee (second from left), standing next to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was appointed Chief Secretary on June 25 last year after a life spent focused on security [File: Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

Hong Kong’s national security regime, coupled with its draconian response to COVID-19, has pushed thousands to leave, including to the UK, where Hong Kong residents born before the 1997 handover have special status.

As well as the harsh restrictions on everyday life as a result of the spread of the Omicron variant, many also worry about what lies ahead for the next generation as Hong Kong schools adopt programmes to teach “patriotism” and national security even to primary school children.

The city’s population fell by 23,600 in 2021, while flight data shows that in 2022 more Hong Kong people continue to head for the exits, with foreign professionals also among those leaving.

The future of Hong Kong

The security crackdown has cast a pall over Hong Kong’s economic future, with the US assessing the territory to no longer be autonomous from China and, therefore, ineligible for special trade privileges.

The US has also imposed sanctions on Hong Kong officials, including Lam and Lee, for undermining that autonomy.

The incoming chief executive will also have to grapple with the fallout from COVID-19, a deeply unequal society and housing that is among the most expensive in the world.

But Lee has hinted that his time in office will prioritise security issues above all else.

He has previously said that Hong Kong should adopt a local version of its Beijing-imposed national security legislation, known as ‘Article 23‘ of the city’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution.

Article 23 says that the city should enact its own legislation to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government,” another term for Beijing.

Hong Kong’s leadership made an aborted attempt in 2003 to introduce the law but dropped the plan after an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets, according to local media.

Lee also told local media last year that he wants to fight “fake news”, suggesting that Hong Kong could see legislation similar to a fake-news law passed in Singapore in 2019. The Singaporean law has been criticised by rights groups as a tool to curb free speech.

Before 2020, Hong Kong was widely regarded as the free speech capital of Asia with a vibrant civil society and boisterous media. Under the new national security legislation, several local media outlets have either been shut down by police or closed their doors for fear of prosecution.

People in Hong Kong queue to buy the final edition of the Apple Daily
People in Hong Kong snapped up copies of the final edition of the Apple Daily when it was published on June 24, 2021 [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

Independent publications have come under attack with top executives and editors at Apple Daily, a pro-democracy local tabloid, and parent company Next Digital charged with crimes like colluding with foreign forces or endangering national security. The newspaper was shut down last year, but not before people queued around the block for its final edition.

Prior to Lee’s announcement, several potential candidates from the business community and executive branch of government had been discussed in the Hong Kong media, but Lee will now run unopposed.

The post will be voted on by a special committee of 1,462 electors on May 8, completing an exercise that has cost the city 278 million Hong Kong dollars ($35.4 million), according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

The former legislator who spoke to Al Jazeera said that, with Lee in charge, more security-related legislation may be coming – this time targeting alleged ‘foreign influence’ in Hong Kong.

The city that once took pride in its British-style legal system and sizeable foreign community as “Asia’s world city” and a key international finance centre will change, they said.

“They will focus on foreign espionage, they will focus on foreign organisations in Hong Kong, and they will focus on fake news, and all sorts of national security legislation like a supercharged sedition offence,” the legislator said, also adding, “The big policy picture is that Beijing is sending a hard-line signal that there will be no pulling back. That’s a very clear message to the international community.”

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