The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can China’s choice for leader of Hong Kong succeed where others failed?

Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee, shown at an April 6 news conference, is China's choice for Hong Kong's next chief executive. (Lam Yik/Pool via REUTERS)
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In the 25 years since China assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, Beijing’s track record in appointing the city’s top leader has been pretty abysmal.

None of the four “chief executives” has managed to complete two full five-year terms. The first quit midway through his second term after a humiliating public scolding from China’s president. His replacement saw his popularity tumble after dashing hopes for political reform and becoming enmeshed in corruption scandals, for which he later went to prison before his conviction was overturned. The third declined to seek a second term after grappling with the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” uprising that created a new generation of local activists.

The incumbent, Carrie Lam, is keeping that ignominious streak unbroken. She is stepping down July 1 at the end of a tumultuous single term, during which she triggered the most widespread unrest seen in decades, then helped Beijing impose a draconian national security law that has squashed civil society and eroded the city’s freedoms. This year, she botched the city’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic by failing to properly plan for an omicron outbreak that has left more than 9,000 people dead, largely among the unvaccinated and elderly.

All four leaders enjoyed broad public support when taking office, and all four became deeply unpopular. Lam is leaving as the most widely disliked of all. She began in 2017 with 61 percent support and currently has just 33 percent support. It must be galling that Hong Kong’s most popular leader was its last colonial governor, Chris Patten, who departed on the royal yacht Britannia with an approval rating of nearly 60 percent.

The failure of all four chief executives was in many ways inevitable. Appointed directly by Beijing — ignore the carefully controlled “election committee” whose job is to provide China’s handpicked choice with some imprimatur of local legitimacy — the chief executive enters office with an irreconcilable task. They must impose the Chinese Communist Party’s control over Hong Kong while at the same time trying to assuage Hong Kongers’ demands for more freedoms, or at least maintain the freedoms they already had.

China’s leaders think they’ve found a solution with their latest choice, the career policeman turned security czar John Lee, who faces no competition for the job. Not known for any particular ideology, Lee is described by those who know him as a low-key and pragmatic implementer, not a visionary or a policymaker. So far, he has not unveiled any specific platform, other than a vague promise to adopt a “results-oriented approach” to tackle the city’s problems.

And that may be just what Beijing wants.

With the imposition of the national security law in 2020 — a law written entirely in China with no local input — Beijing seems to have taken a more direct hand in running Hong Kong’s affairs.

The Chinese central government’s main presence in the city, known as the Liaison Office, has become a more visible presence. Last fall, the normally under-the-radar office sent scores of mainland officials to public housing estates, youth clubs, construction sites and fishing villages to listen to the problems of ordinary locals and prepare a lengthy to-do list for the local government.

The view from Beijing seems to be that Hong Kongers’ discontent is fueled more by problems of living standards — anger at the lack of adequate affordable housing, the enormous wealth gap and the stranglehold of traditional tycoons — than politics. Chinese officials seem to believe that Hong Kongers, like their mainland counterparts, will be willing to forgo political freedoms if the government is seen as competent and attentive to solving everyday problems.

In that sense, the next chief executive will be performing more like a local mayor, implementing policies laid out from above.

Can Lee succeed where his predecessors all failed?

On the negative side, he faces a 34.8 percent approval rating, according to the most recent survey in March. During the 2019 protests, when he was security secretary, demonstrators held placards with Lee’s picture alongside Lam’s, calling for both to resign. He is one of the key Hong Kong leaders sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department — which might be a plus in Beijing’s eyes.

But several factors are working in Lee’s favor. He doesn’t have to worry about street protests or popular unrest given that the security law has quashed most dissent and civil society has largely disappeared. He will have a pliant legislature made up almost entirely of pro-China figures, so he won’t have to worry about any opposition holding up government bills with delaying tactics. And he has basically been given his governing blueprint from mainland China, which he needs only to implement.

Perhaps most important is that China needs him to succeed. Beijing wants a two-term chief executive to show that its “patriots only” governing model can get results, as the cries for universal suffrage grow fainter.

Lee may not be who Hong Kongers want. But conversely — with dissent stifled, the population cowed, politics curtailed and Beijing’s leaders throwing their full weight behind him — he may actually find more success than his predecessors at addressing everyday problems. From China’s perspective, just having Lee finish two full terms would amount to a victory.