China installs former security chief as Hong Kong leader

HONG KONG – China is installing a career security official as Hong Kong’s new leader, the culmination of a sweeping political transformation that has crushed all opposition in Asia’s financial hub and brought it ever tighter under Beijing’s control.

John Lee, formerly the city’s No. 2, is Sunday’s only candidate in a name-only election. Well over half of the 1,500-strong electoral committee that chooses the chief executive has already backed him, and he only needs a simple majority to win.

Lee will replace Carrie Lam on July 1. Her five-year tenure was marked by Hong Kong’s most turbulent times since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.

The election follows major changes to Hong Kong’s electoral laws over the past year to ensure only “patriots” loyal to Beijing can run for office. This also reorganized the legislature to eliminate all opposition votes.


The elaborate arrangements surrounding the predetermined outcome speak to Beijing’s desire for a veneer of democracy. Although they will vote in a secret ballot, Hong Kong voters have all been carefully screened.

“Even autocracies today feel compelled to hold elections to give greater legitimacy to their own people and to the international community,” said Yvonne Chiu, a professor at the US Naval War College who has written extensively on Hong Kong politics.

The city’s four previous chief executives were also virtually all appointed by Beijing. An attempt to elect the leader by popular vote fell through in 2014 amid protests demanding that Beijing also give up the right to register candidates.

Lee’s rise grew out of massive pro-democracy protests in 2019 that escalated into violent clashes. As security minister, he led the campaign to confront protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, and later rounded up many for arrest.


Lam carried out Beijing’s orders and was widely seen as the face of the crackdown. But the career bureaucrat still didn’t seem to be keeping pace with China’s hard-line President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

For her successor, Beijing chose Lee, a former senior police official and staunch supporter of the new National Security Law, which bans subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Since its implementation, more than 150 activists and others have been arrested.

After the law was passed in 2020, the United States sanctioned Lee, Lam and other Hong Kong and mainland China government officials for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting freedom of expression and assembly.”

Almost all government critics were imprisoned, fled abroad, or were intimidated to silence them. Thousands of residents voted with their feet, many professionals and others left the city of 7.4 million.


The intensity of the 2019 protests appeared to have taken Beijing by surprise, leading to the imposition of the National Security Law the following year and the restructuring of the legislature to put pro-Beijing forces firmly in power in 2021.

The unintended effects include the further alienation of Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that claims China as its territory. Beijing’s crackdown has been seen as an important factor in pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election in 2020.

While Lee said he would strengthen Hong Kong’s competitiveness to ensure it remains “a gateway and a bridge between our country and the world,” his election leaves little doubt that maintaining political stability is a priority.

This could come at the expense of Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place to do business, with a clear regulatory structure and an independent judiciary. Britain has removed two judges appointed to Hong Kong’s top court to uphold the rule of law, saying their presence is “no longer tenable” because of increasingly repressive laws being enacted by China.


China’s long-ruling Communist Party claims that stability sets the stage for economic growth and development.

Hong Kong’s once-thriving free press has taken a hit as the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily has been shut down and its founder Jimmy Lai is in jail.

Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong was taken down, and Hong Kong fell 80 places in Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 World Press Freedom Index. The local Foreign Correspondents Club canceled its annual Human Rights Press Awards this year over national security concerns.

Fearing political repercussions, universities have severed ties with their student organizations, while the government has severed ties with the largest teachers’ union.

Hong Kong people still enjoy greater freedoms than their counterparts in mainland China, but any hopes for greater democracy have been dashed, replaced by concerns that the city will increasingly become like other Chinese cities, despite being “a good place for everyone.” “is to pretend everything is the same as always with China,” Chiu said.



Moritsugu reported from Beijing.

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Joel McCord

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