Security chief who led pro-democracy crackdown set to be Hong Kong’s new leader

At the height of Hong Kong’s protests in the summer of 2019, angry pro-democracy legislators shouted in the Chinese territory’s legislative council: “down with John Lee!”, as the veteran security chief defended his force’s treatment of the protesters and journalists.

“I hope people will understand the chaotic situation and the pressure faced by each and every one at the scene on that day,” Lee said, unapologetically. “I hope members of the public will not vent their dissatisfaction of the government on police officers, because they are only discharging their duties.”

On Sunday Lee, 64, who built a long career in police and security and oversaw the the heavy-handed crackdown on anti-Beijing protesters in 2019, is set to become Hong Kong’s new chief executive in a single-candidate selection process to succeed Carrie Lam. Like Lam, he was among the first Hongkong and mainland Chinese officials to be on the US sanctions list for their role in eroding the city’s once-guaranteed rights and freedoms.

But despite the controversy, by the time the leadership poll takes place more than half of the nearly 1,500 people selected to cast ballots would have already showed their support to Lee – guaranteeing him victory.

“By picking John Lee as the candidate without competition, Beijing is sending a message to the outside world,” said Ho-fung Hung, a Hong Kong-born professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins and the author of the book City on the Edge: Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule. “The message is that Beijing has cemented control and will continue its tough policy in Hong Kong," hy het gesê.

Lee joined Hong Kong’s police force as an inspector in 1977. He rose through the ranks and, in 2017 became the head of the government’s Security Bureau. Like many of his peers, he speaks fluent English and was educated abroad, holding a master’s degree in public policy and administration from Charles Sturt university in Australia.

In the last few years, Lee has shown his staunch support for Article 23 – the controversial national security law that was passed in 2020. The legislation bars secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces. Since its enactment, dozens of pro-democracy legislators have either been arrested or have moved abroad. Au Nok-hin, who led the chanting of “Down with John Lee” in that council session three years ago, was among the 55 members of the opposition who were arrested under the national security law last year.

Lee’s opponents worry that the former security tsar would eventually turn Hong Kong into another mainland Chinese city by further eroding its once-proud traditions – for example, of press freedom. Last year Lee oversaw the freeze of media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s assets, which eventually led to the closure of one of the city’s most popular pro-democracy tabloid newspapers, Apple Daily.

In November Lee told RTHK, the local public broadcaster, that the government was looking into “different tactics” to target “fake news” through legislation.

A few months before, the city’s new police chief, Raymond Siu, called for a “fake news” law to tackle “hostility against the police”. Despite being a sole contender for the top job, Lee has in the past weeks been seen making policy pledges and receiving a growing number of supporters from the city’s establishment. Aan 20 April 148 high-profile figures, including tycoon Li Ka-shing and film star Jackie Chan joined his campaign as advisers. Lee is widely seen as a “dependable and devoutly loyal” figure to Beijing.

Dissenting voices have largely disappeared following last year’s electoral changes that allowed only “patriots” in legislature polls. Before the December vote, Lee warned that candidates who had been banned from running for failing the “patriots” criteria would try to thwart the elections. “We have to make sure that they will not succeed," hy het gesê.

Analysts say that stability and security will be Lee’s main focus. In a closed-door rally on Friday, Lee met with more than 1,000 local figures who will vote and urged the public to have a “collective mindset”. His supporters also praised him for “helping Hong Kong to restore order from chaos”.

According to a 44-page manifesto published last week, Lee’s priority would be to enact Article 23 of the city’s constitution. Previous Hong Kong administrations had repeatedly tried – but failed – to make it happen.

“But whether he would enact Article 23 is a moot point”, said Prof Steve Tsang, a Hong Kong politics expert at SOAS in London. “This is because the state security apparatus is already in place through the national security legislation. Therefore, there’s no guarantee they’d end up doing that.”

Hung said that Lee’s security background inevitably sends a strong message, but looking at the dynamics between Hong Kong and Beijing over the course of the Covid outbreak in the city earlier this year, one could also see the ultimate limit to Beijing’s sway in the city.

“It seems to me that Beijing still has not decided how to strike a balance between security and maintaining Hong Kong’s unique role as an offshore financial centre. The tug-of-war is going to continue for some time under Lee’s watch," hy het bygevoeg.

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