Beijing-Backed Hardliner John Lee Chosen as Hong Kong’s Next Leader
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Beijing-Backed Hardliner John Lee Chosen as Hong Kong’s Next Leader

Hong Kong’s Next Leader


John Lee has been confirmed as Hong Kong’s next chief executive following a campaign that critics labelled as absurd after Beijing backed his candidacy and no one else ran for election. Lee, a former security minister and policeman, received 1,416 votes on Sunday from the 1,461-member “patriots only” selection committee, which is mostly comprised of pro-Beijing politicians and businesspeople and represents 0.02 per cent of the city’s 7.4mn population. “I will try my best to further convince whoever who [sic] disagrees with me because it is my duty to let people understand what I can do to them,” said Lee, who will succeed outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam when he is sworn in on July 1.

The vast majority of Hong Kong’s political opposition is in jail or has fled the city after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The measure has been used to crack down on individuals and organisations deemed disloyal to the government. But authorities still attempted to sell the new leader to the city’s residents, whose voting power had been steadily disenfranchised by Beijing-led political reforms. The latest overhaul in 2021 was dubbed “patriots ruling Hong Kong”, and led to the introduction of a vetting process for all candidates. It also reduced the number of directly elected lawmakers in the city’s legislative assembly. Thousands of banners and other promotional materials for Lee’s campaign were splashed across the city ahead of Sunday’s vote, for which local authorities allocated more than HK$220mn (US$28mn) even though Lee ran uncontested, and the support of the central government assured his anointment.

In previous elections, Beijing has signalled its preference for a candidate but allowed rivals who often attracted votes from Hong Kong’s business elite. “[Lee] is going to be endorsed anyway. So you could say that this is a waste of time and money,” said John P Burns, an emeritus professor in politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong. “There is a sense of unrealness to it, and absurdity.” Ho-Fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who studies Hong Kong’s politics, said the election was a charade. “Now there is no competitor, it’s a pure facade now,” he said. But political analyst Sonny Lo said it was important for Beijing to go through with the process of an election. “Beijing cares about the legitimacy of this election as it symbolises the realisation of a Hong Kong-style of democracy,” he said. Lee, 64, made a handful of choreographed campaign visits with pre-selected families in old tenement buildings and held a rally on Friday that members of the public were not allowed to attend. His campaign previously held a televised forum with no live audience. A total of 1,428 votes were recorded on Sunday, with just eight opposing Lee’s appointment and four deemed invalid. Another 33 members of the committee did not cast ballots. Lau Siu-kai, a Beijing adviser and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a semi-official think-tank, dismissed criticism of the “patriotic” leadership selection process.

The high turnout and endorsement rate for Lee “reflected a high degree of unity among patriots”, he said. “[Beijing] has never said that democratisation is the major preference,” he said. “The process is also beneficial to [reassure the central government] that Hong Kong will not become a national security threat.” Local businesses and property tycoons are keen for Lee to revive Hong Kong’s pandemic-hit economy after the city recorded a worse than expected 4 per cent contraction in gross domestic product in the first quarter of the year compared with same period in 2021. “If we do not loosen [Covid-19] restrictions when other places in the region are relaxing them . . . our economy will not be able to recover in a long, long time,” said Stewart Leung, vice chair of real estate conglomerate Wheelock Properties and a member on the small-circle selection committee.

But Patrick Healy, chair of Cathay Pacific and also a committee member, told pro-Beijing media that Hong Kong has gone through an “extremely successful period” and expressed hope that Lee could deliver “stability and security”. Cathay, the de facto flag carrier, has experienced a 99 per cent dive in passenger traffic from pre-pandemic levels, as the territory’s stringent zero-Covid policy has thrust its status as an aviation hub into doubt. Tough entry restrictions, imposed as Hong Kong’s Covid death rate rose to the highest in the world in March, have sparked an exodus, with the city recording a net loss of more than 140,000 residents this year as of last month.

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