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Who is John Lee, Hong Kong's incoming leader?

May 13, 2022
topics: Democracy
by: Sasha Kong
located in: Hong Kong
tags: Beijing, elections, Hong Kong, John Lee, press freedom

Hong Kong’s freedoms are expected to take a nosedive once John Lee, the city’s former security chief, will take the helm in early July, experts predicted, as the sole candidate for the chief executive election won a majority of votes last Sunday. 

Having spent most of his career in the police force and later at the Security Bureau, Lee is known for his hardline approach in the 2019 pro-democracy protests and the enforcement of the controversial national security law. 

The former British colony’s election this year has also secured the appointment of Lee after the shake-up of the city in the last three years. Currently, the leader of the semi-autonomous city is elected by the 1,500 members of the election committee, which accounts for only about 0.02 percent of the city’s 7.5 million population. Out of the 1,500 members, only two-thirds are elected by fewer than 8,000 voters. 

Rigged election

This comes after an election system overhaul that completely removed the makeup of district councils - the only officials that are directly elected by the general public in Hong Kong - in the election committee, amid Beijing’s crackdown on dissents in view of the anti-government protests and pro-democracy candidates’ victory in the 2019 district council election. 

The legislative election in Hong Kong last year stressed that only “patriots” were allowed to run, and many pro-democracy candidates were barred from participating or were tied up in court trials for protest-related charges. 

Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law researcher at the Georgetown University Center for Asian Law, called the election a "rubber stamp."

"This CE election is the first contest with a single candidate since 2007. Beijing allowed limited competitions within the CE election in the past 15 years, yet this time it decided not to create any possibility of dividing the 'patriots'," Lai told FairPlanet. 

"This election further symbolises that after the election overhaul in 2021, the new Election Committee that selects the CE is merely a rubber stamp, when no meaningful opposition can exist in the new system anymore," he added.

The EU called the election a "violation of democratic principles and political pluralism" in a statement. The G7 also condemned John Lee’s victory, calling the election system an "erosion of political and civil rights and Hong Kong’s autonomy."

Who is John Lee? 

John Lee’s profile and track record seem to fit the profile of Beijing’s increasingly tough stance towards Hong Kong’s opposition voices. The former police officer refused to tame the flames of deepening tension between pro-democracy protesters and the police during 2019, calling the protesters a "serious danger to Hong Kong society."

The 64-year-old remains extremely loyal to Beijing, pushing through the controversies of the national security law under which many dissidents were arrested. In August 2020, he told the public and the media to "cut ties" with the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, after he sanctioned a raid into its newsroom and arrested several executives. 

Soon afterwards, Lee appeared on the sanction list of Washington, which said the former is involved in "coercing, arresting, detaining or imprisoning individuals under the authority of the national security law." This led to Google’s ban of Lee’s campaign’s Youtube channel, which Lee described as "bullying acts."

The former security official repeatedly threatened the opposition, dubbing foreign and pro-democracy media working "for self-serving political purposes." He suggested setting up a system or legislation to further “regulate” Hong Kong’s media; one which would encompass not only people who do not see eye to eye with the pro-China government but also those who are unsatisfied with the government’s anti-pandemic measures. Lee called people who "spread rumours" the "enemies of the society."

"Even though John Lee claimed that basic rights, free expression and free press have been embedded in the Basic Law of the city already, the truth is that these rights are no longer safeguarded by the government and local courts," Lai added, "which criminalise independent media outlets, journalists as well as citizens who publicly disapprove of the government’s anti-pandemic program by using sedition laws and the national security law. It is very likely that John Lee's leadership will not loosen its crackdown on peaceful expression of dissenting voices."

Future policies

Lee said that enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law - a more comprehensive version of the current national security law that includes a treason section - is his priority after taking the office. The bill was shelved in 2003 after rallies broke out that eventually also caused former chief executive Tung Chee-wah to step down. 

In a manifesto ahead of the election, Lee pledged to strengthen governance and boost land and housing supplies. He aimed to slash the notorious waiting times for listing houses by about a year in the city with some of the highest property and rent prices in the world. Government data showed that Hong Kongers have to wait for up to six years to be allocated a public flat. 

He also vowed to enhance Hong Kong’s national education system, a move which critics say could brainwash school children into blindly following Beijing’s orders

"Beijing chose the city's leader to enhance the national security ecosystem in Hong Kong, instead of attempting to regain international recognition of Hong Kong, which lost its reputation of the rule of law and judicial independence after the national security law was imposed in 2020," said Lai. "No doubt, John Lee's leadership will further converge Hong Kong into the governance style in the mainland." 

John Lee is expected to take office on July 1st after the current embattled leader Carrie Lam leaves in late June.

Image by Erin Song

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
Author
Hong Kong
John Lee, the former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement, was declared the business hub's new leader.
© Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The 64-year-old remains extremely loyal to Beijing, pushing through the controversies of the national security law under which many dissidents were arrested.
© Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
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