Where the language of democracy is a cloak

On Friday afternoon, supporters of John Lee gathered for what his adviser called the primary rallya last push in Lees campaign to ensure victory choice To be Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

Don’t let the vocabulary fool you. No member of the general public attended Lee’s event, a staged diversion of a week-long show masquerading as a competition. He didn’t really need to win her over; He only needed the support of just over 750 verified Beijing loyalists in a city of about 7.5 million. In any case, he ran unopposed and today, on the day of the “vote”, he will win.

Like many institutions in Hong Kong, which are being hollowed out to accommodate the needs of the city’s new political regime, great emphasis has been placed on keeping up appearances around the elections. Although Hong Kong has never had full democracy and selection for the chief executive, the city’s top post, has always been the domain of a select few, this year is even more limited. As such, Lee and Hong Kong authorities have spent the past few weeks participating in an elaborate charade to ensure his insurrection maintains a patina of legitimacy.

Most days, Lee, the former No. 2 government official, met with a variety of pro-Beijing advocacy groups and handpicked city residents, with readings and posed photos quickly uploaded to his social media platforms. A few times a week, he descended a gold-accented escalator into the building’s lobby from his campaign office in Central Plaza, a high-rise in downtown Wan Chai that was bathed in early 1990s pageantry. where a small crowd of journalists asked him questions and took pictures.

During a recent briefing I attended, he was hard to hear over the din of the marble lobby where office workers went about their day, and few stopped to acknowledge Lee’s presence. A delivery driver, still wearing his motorcycle helmet, came down the escalator as Lee spoke and continued tapping his phone, seemingly unaware of the future mayor. The government, meanwhile, has continued as if preparing to hold a normal election, issuing press releases and organizing press conferences, detailing its work to collect and count fewer than 1,500 ballots. The city’s anti-corruption watchdog sends 80 observers to monitor the elections. Not to be outdone, police say they will deploy up to 7,000 officers to ensure things run smoothly. At Friday’s rally, supporters took the stage in groups of three and took turns showering praise on Lee as he sat in the audience and watched.

As the “campaign” progressed, Lee’s interaction with the public was virtually non-existent. Instead, Hong Kong’s elite — aging tycoons, academics and businessmen — have one by one pledged their support to Lee in recent weeks. Those most eager to curry favor with the future leader rushed to his campaign headquarters at the start of the selection exercise and posed in front of his office in front of a sky-blue poster of the city’s skyline. Lee sometimes stood beside them, his face often twisted into a wry smile and his outstretched arm giving a thumbs-up. He didn’t have a platform or detailed guidelines yet. It didn’t matter. (Lee’s flimsy manifesto was released just nine days before the vote.) Lee’s pace of speech is odd and pushy, and throughout the campaign he was neither charismatic nor particularly enthusiastic about his role as Anointed One. That didn’t matter either. Instead, as Lee spoke, he projected the confidence of an unprepared applicant who’d faked his resume and unexpectedly gotten an undeserved interview, constantly emphasizing that he was “results-oriented.” That – you probably guessed it – didn’t matter at all.

What mattered – the only thing that ever mattered – was that Lee had Beijing’s support.

Desperate for smooth and completely non-competitive elections, Beijing officials in Hong Kong made it clear from the start that Lee was the only option. He previously chaired the review committee for the city’s legislature, personally ensuring that all candidates, including those who are among the select few to vote this time, were sufficiently loyal and “patriotic.” If elections are horse racing, then Lee’s is a dressage show in itself – in which a single contestant obediently dances a tightly choreographed routine in front of a panel of judges.

One of the only aspects of Lee’s selection process that resembled a democracy was the naked scramble of those eager to score points and perhaps positions in his administration. Many of the people who eulogized Lee were furious just weeks ago at the government’s clumsy handling of Hong Kong’s recent pandemic wave, which has left hospitals with corpses piled up and frail, elderly patients lying outside. Judy Chan, an MP for the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, has been critical of the Hong Kong government’s pandemic response. “I don’t think the government was prepared for this,” she told me in late February, around the time Hong Kong had the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. Chan laughed when I asked her if she thought Chinese President Xi Jinping – Lee’s top boss – was happy with the city’s actions. “Not that pleased, of course,” she said. Despite this, her party met with Lee last month and, after a brief discussion, pledged their support.

In fact, Lee’s rise to CEO was such a foregone conclusion that it’s more interesting to ask why he wanted the job in the first place. (Given the unusual circumstances, there has been a lively debate online about exactly what to call your campaign and election.) Since Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997, four people have held the post, and all four have had major problems with the task of reconciling the wants and needs of Hong Kongers with the demands of Beijing. The first resigned after massive protests. The next ended up in prison at the end of his sentence. The one that followed was deeply unpopular, sparking even more protests and being banned from running again, making way for current chief executive Carrie Lam. Their stubbornness and selfishness helped launch and prolong the massive pro-democracy protests of 2019. These set in motion many of the changes that have gripped Hong Kong, most notably Beijing’s introduction of a draconian national security law in 2020. When Lam leaves office after a few months and officially hands over the reins to Lee, Hong Kong becomes drastically less free, less democratic, less open and more mainland-like than when they began their tenure.

Lee, a former police officer, served as security secretary during the 2019 protests and oversaw the police response, which left the force’s reputation in tatters and fueled widespread public anger. Lee was then promoted to chief secretary for administration, the city’s No. 2. His name surfaced earlier this year as a serious contender for the CEO post, initially mentioned alongside a handful of others including Finance Secretary Paul Chan; former Police Commissioner Chris Tang; and former World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan. Lee’s security background at a time when Beijing feels threatened on multiple fronts and his lack of personal ties to the city’s ultra-wealthy rulers seem to have made him desirable in Beijing’s eyes.

His campaign has garnered minimal public interest, and perhaps that’s why he’s managed to avoid making any real news at all. There are few banners with his face in town. Some posters hanging in subway stations are reminding people – most of whom are not eligible to vote – that May 8 is “CEO Election Day”. Coverage of the first day of his campaign was largely pushed off front pages after the arrest of a longtime journalist. Opposition figures who may have questioned or shoved Lee in the past are almost all in prison or retired from politics. The most attention he drew was when YouTube shut down his channel, citing concerns about US sanctions: Like Lam, Lee was credited for his role in cracking down on the 2019 demonstrations and for the actions that followed sanctioned.

A former pro-Beijing MP involved in past chief executive elections told me he sees the current selection process as a return to Hong Kong’s colonial rule, a time when a governor was appointed from London without the local population had something to say. “They only sent one governor back then, and now they only have one candidate, and that’s Beijing’s preferred candidate,” he told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the current political climate. Hong Kong’s revamped legislature, now unopposed, would work to back Lee because lawmakers know he speaks directly for Beijing. “Actually, I would call it,” he said, “just an appointment system.” Where the language of democracy is a cloak

Jessica MacLeish

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