Hong Kong: A one-horse race for the chief executive

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Last Friday, April 29, former chief secretary John Lee, the only candidate in next Sunday’s May 8 election for Hong Kong’s chief executive – where the voters are the roughly 1,500 members of a Chinese-dominated election committee – presented its election manifesto and promised to lead an effective and pragmatic administration “results-oriented and solution-oriented”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Hong Kong to swear in the new chief executive on July 1 and celebrate 25 years of Chinese rule over the former British colony.

Lee’s entire 45-year career — minus the last nine months — has been about safety. He joined the police when he was 19, turning down an offer to study engineering at the University of Hong Kong, apparently for financial reasons. Interestingly, all of the former CEOs except shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa came from low-income families. Two had police fathers.

Lee rose from trainee inspector in 1977 to deputy commissioner in 2012, when he was appointed undersecretary of security. Five years later, he became its secretary.

Lee’s image as a hardliner mirrored his actions as security chief, particularly during the massive 2019 protests sparked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to push through a bill which would have allowed the extradition of fugitives in Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including mainland China. .

The protests paralyzed the Lam administration. The police have adopted increasingly aggressive means to maintain order.

Lee, as security secretary, defended police actions despite numerous accusations of abuse of power.

When asked at the Legislative Council why officers of the Special Tactics Squad did not display their unique police identification number, Lee said there was no place on their uniform for the To do. The absence of such numbers has made it difficult to identify abusive agents.

Beijing clarified its position on July 29, 2019 when the Office of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs held the first in a series of so far rare briefings. A spokesperson said the central government “strongly supports the Hong Kong government led by Carrie Lam and the police to enforce the law”.

Beijing’s support for the Hong Kong police was repeatedly made clear in subsequent briefings.

Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, which targeted secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Lee’s job as security secretary was to implement this law. In August 2020, the United States sanctioned 11 Hong Kong and mainland officials, including Lee, for “undermining” the city’s autonomy.

In Beijing’s eyes, Lee was exactly the person Hong Kong needed. Last June, he was promoted to chief secretary, the No. 2 official, when Matthew Cheung resigned.

Lam announced April 4 that she would not seek a second term. Lee quickly resigned to run for general manager. China was just as quick to show its support for Lee, thus securing no other candidate.

In his manifesto, Lee pledged to enact security legislation required under the Basic Law. The Tung administration shelved such a bill after half a million people protested.

Lee’s critics point to his narrowly-focused security background and warn he lacks experience in business and finance.

In response, the Lee campaign released the names of business supporters, including Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man; real estate developer Allan Zeman, who renounced Canadian citizenship to become a Chinese citizen; and Wharf Holdings chairman Peter Woo.

Lee affirmed his determination to keep Hong Kong as a financial and business center.

It emphasizes social issues and has promised to reduce waiting times for social housing.

Asked about political reform, Lee said Sunday as he greeted people in a wet market that he would not concern himself with that until all social issues were resolved. Only when “society tells me that all the problems no longer exist”, he said, will he then turn to issues such as universal suffrage.

Clearly, Lee is seen by China as the right man for the job. However, the Hong Kong public did not have a chance to evaluate it. It is significant that none of his predecessors served two full terms.

Lee has his work cut out for him. Now that he has won Beijing’s support, he must appeal to Hong Kong audiences. If it produces satisfactory solutions to Hong Kong’s many social problems, it should lead to increased popular support. Then, in five years, if he runs for a second term, he could have the support of both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong. After all, under the Basic Law, he is responsible both to Beijing and to the people of Hong Kong.

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