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Beijing’s Instability Concerns Drive Hong Kong Exec Pick
John Lee to be chief executive as arrests continue, spurring fears of police state
The Chinese government picked ex-cop John Lee as Hong Kong’s next chief executive out of continuing concern over possible political unrest, analysts say. Lee, the current chief secretary, was previously a security secretary who oversaw the arrests of over 100 people and the closure of media like Apple Daily under the National Security Law.
“John Lee’s appointment shows Beijing’s lack of confidence in Hong Kong’s stability related to geopolitical circumstances in the near future,” a political analyst told Asia Sentinel.
The Chinese government also fears China might possibly face US sanctions due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the analyst said, which could cause collateral damage in Hong Kong since it’s an international financial hug serving the Chinese capital in Beijing, the analyst said.
On April 6, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned that sanctions imposed by the US and its allies on Russia for invading Ukraine should give China a "good understanding" of the consequences it could face if it provides material support to Moscow.
“If further sanctions are leveled against China, it would exacerbate the economic turmoil and unemployment in Hong Kong, which may, in turn, affect social stability,” the analyst added.
“What does his selection mean? Beijing still doesn’t trust the Hong Kong authorities nor the elite, both in government or in the business sector. They continue to see Hong Kong as a powder keg,” a Hong Kong watcher told Asia Sentinel. “Whilst it may be a stretch to describe Hong Kong as a police state, his appointment is a clear marker of the direction of travel, and that Beijing sees Hong Kong principally as a security rather than governance issue.”
Lee will be the first former law enforcement official to helm the semi-autonomous city. The current chief executive Carrie Lam and a former chief executive, Donald Tsang, were civil servants. Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and Carrie Lam’s predecessor Leung Chun-ying were businessmen.
On April 6, Lee announced he resigned as chief secretary to run for chief executive. He is assured of the top job, since Beijing intends to have him as the sole candidate. The next chief executive will be selected in May and sworn in on July 1 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is scheduled to visit the city to mark the 25th anniversary of the return by Britain to China.
“Today, John Lee quits and begins his CE (chief executive) campaign, with the arrests of a trade union leader, independent journalist, and people safeguarding the truth of Tiananmen Massacre. He believes rulers have the absolute authority to do anything they want. He is evil and dictatorial. END,” tweeted Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and pro-democracy activist now in the UK, on April 6. “When I was in legislature (2016 - 17), John Lee was the undersecretary of security bureau. He's already notoriously difficult to deal with. He’s consistently been the most hawkish and belligerent official in the cabinet. It's because he was from police force before this role.”
On April 6, Hong Kong police arrested six activists for suspected sedition and violation of the National Security Law, including former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions Leo Tang and journalist Siew Yun-long, according to local media reports. On March 20, Hong Kong’s National Security police arrested a mixed martial arts coach and his female assistant.
An independent online media, Stand News, was closed in December 2021 following a police raid on its premises and arrests of some of its staff, while an anti-Beijing newspaper, Apple Daily, closed in June 2021 after a raid on its offices and arrests of some of its senior executives.
On the actions against Apple Daily and Stand News, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial on December 29, 2021, headlined, “No One is Safe in Hong Kong.” The US newspaper said China’s “shredding of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” guaranteed under One Country, Two Systems, reached “new levels of nastiness.”
Two days later, Lee wrote a letter to the protesting: “If you are genuinely interested in press freedom, you should support actions against people who have unlawfully exploited the media as a tool to pursue their political or personal gains.”
Before being promoted to chief secretary on June 25, 2021, Lee was security secretary from July 1, 2017 to June 25, 2021, when protests rocked Hong Kong from 2019 to 2020 and Beijing imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in the middle of 2020 to quell the unrest. The draconian law grants sweeping powers of detention that sidestep the niceties of due process.
Lack of experience
“John Lee’s lack of experience in government will strengthen Beijing’s hand in Hong Kong,” the analyst predicted, causing him to rely on the Liaison Office and possibly former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, said the analyst.
Leung will likely be the chief convener of the 1,448-member Election Committee responsible for electing the chief executive, since he is the sole candidate for the post.
“Beijing wants Leung to be convenor as Beijing knows John Lee is not experienced in governance. Beijing wants Leung to guide John,” the analyst explained. Leung was forced to leave office after a single term because of record unpopularity.
The Chinese government’s choice of Lee as the next chief executive is an admission that it lacks popular support in the city, said the Hong Kong watcher. The former police official Lee had a negative net approval rating of 10 percent in early January, according to a poll of 1,000 Hong Kong residents by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI).
But Lee fared better than Carrie Lam, who had a negative net approval rating of 53 percent during the same period. At a press conference on April 4, Lam announced she wouldn’t seek a second term as chief executive. She revealed she told the Chinese government back in March 2021 of her desire to resign. Around the middle of 2019, she offered to resign several times over the huge protests which began in Hong Kong at that time, but the Chinese leaders refused to accept her resignation, the Financial Times reported on July 14, 2019.
Since Hong Kong’s handover on July 1, 1997, no chief executive has lasted two full terms. In December 2004, then Chinese President Hu Jintao scolded Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung and his cabinet, which was aired on television. Tung resigned on March 12, 2005. Tung’s successor Tsang was chief executive from June 21, 2005 to June 30, 2012 and was sentenced to 20 months in prison on February 22, 2017 for misconduct in public office. Tsang’s successor Leung served one term as chief executive, as did Leung’s successor Carrie Lam.
Commenting on the prospect of Lee as chief executive, Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a British nongovernmental organization that monitors human rights in Hong Kong, tweeted, “Hong Kong goes from grim, to grimmer, to even grimmer, to grimmest, in terms of its quisling CCP (Chinese Communist Party) leadership.”