Ex-Hong Kong security chief launches bid to become city’s leader

A veteran Hong Kong law enforcement official, John Lee, has announced his plan to run for the city’s top job, in a sign Beijing is focused on deepening its crackdown on dissent in the Asian financial hub.

Hong Kong’s No. 2 official told a news briefing Wednesday that he had notified outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam in a letter that he would step down and seek her job. “Having been in the government for over 40 years, to serve the people of Hong Kong is a glory,” Lee said, adding that he will elaborate on his agenda once his candidacy has been formally approved by Beijing.

China’s Liaison Office told local elites earlier Wednesday that Lee, 64, had the blessing of President Xi Jinping’s government to become chief executive, media including the South China Morning Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter. No other candidates were expected to be endorsed by Beijing.

“China seems to have given up the idea of Hong Kong as an international financial hub, at least in the short term,” Eilo Yu, associate professor in government and public administration at the University of Macau, said of Beijing’s decision to back Lee over a more business-minded candidate. “They are likely focusing on first taking control. Essentially, the national security camp has won the game.”

Lee’s solitary run in the May 8 vote would mark the first time in two decades a candidate has stood unopposed, reducing the votes of the 1,500 mostly Beijing loyalists on the city’s election committee to a rubber stamp for China.

“The election of the CE is by now mainly for show,” said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute. “Beijing has made sure it gets the candidate it wants.”

The former career police officer emerged as a potential candidate in June when he was named chief secretary, a post that’s launched two of the city’s four leaders into the top job. Prior to that, Lee served as Lam’s security minister, overseeing a clampdown on the pro-democracy opposition and implementing a Beijing-drafted national security law.

Lam announced Monday that she wouldn’t seek re-election after a tumultuous five-year term consumed by internal crises, unprecedented intervention by Beijing and increasing isolation from the West. Friction points included mass protests in 2019, the subsequent security law and COVID-19 policies that all but closed the city’s borders.

Hong Kong’s next leader will take office July 1, the halfway mark in Beijing’s 50-year pledge to preserve the city’s liberal financial and political systems. No chief executive has so far managed to complete two full terms, as they struggle to satisfy both Beijing’s demand for control and citizens’ expectations of greater freedoms.

Lee will face pressure to restore business confidence, address a record population decline and articulate a clearer vision for the city’s virus strategy. His near-exclusive security background will also bolster concerns that Beijing will further tighten its grip on the city.

The former police officer was a staunch supporter of the extradition to China bill that sparked the 2019 protests, and was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 for his role in curtailing political freedoms under the security law.

Some 170 people have been arrested by national security police, with a growing number charged with sedition under a colonial-era criminal ordinance that had been dormant for decades. Six more people were arrested for sedition Wednesday, including Leo Tang, former vice president of the disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, according to media reports.

Lee’s agenda will likely include the passage of additional security legislation banning sedition and the theft of state secrets. He also said in November that the city was studying how to address what it deems false information in media reports, echoing Lam’s earlier comments that a “fake news” law might be needed.

The former police official has been a leading critic of the city’s once-freewheeling press. He accused the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper of using journalism to endanger national security, and has called journalists who use media work to pursue a political purpose “evil elements.” Lee has frequently written letters to dispute the coverage of foreign media outlets during his tenure, including Bloomberg News, the Economist and the Wall Street Journal.

In January 2019, Lee told the city’s legislature that counterterrorism measures in China’s western region of Xinjiang were “humane.” The U.S. has said that the Chinese government’s treatment of the ethnic Uyghur minority amount to genocide, which Beijing has repeatedly disputed. Lee has since warned of the need to tackle terrorist threats in Hong Kong.

Lee is likely to further emphasize central government policies such as Xi’s “COVID-zero” strategy, said Ivan Choy, senior lecturer in politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Some stakeholders in Hong Kong may not be happy with too harsh anti-COVID policy and measures,” he added, noting that every chief executive faces the same dilemma: balancing Hong Kong’s needs “as a city of China, and also an international cosmopolitan city.”

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