The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beijing’s security-focused candidate wins Hong Kong election unopposed

John Lee waves after his election as Hong Kong’s chief executive on May 8. (Lam Yik/Reuters)
6 min

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s top security official won election Sunday to become the city’s new chief executive, after running unopposed, in the latest sign of Beijing’s tightened control over Hong Kong even as its future as an international business hub remains uncertain.

The selection of John Lee by Beijing and his subsequent election underscore mainland China’s desire for loyalty and obedience in a territory once known for its freewheeling press and open business environment.

On Sunday, Lee received 1,416 votes of support and eight votes of no support from a 1,460-member election committee made up largely of politicians and business executives, now even deeper in Beijing’s grip after electoral revisions last year limited candidates to “patriots” deemed loyal to China.

“With loyalty and perseverance, I shall undertake this historical mission and unite and lead the 7.4 million Hong Kong people to start a new chapter together,” Lee said.

Beijing’s handpicked candidate for Hong Kong signals tighter control

Lee will face a number of thorny issues when his term starts July 1, notably the question of removing travel restrictions and reopening borders to keep the city a major international business destination. He is expected to oversee new restrictions with the implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which requires the city to enact its own security law. Scarce housing also remains a perennial challenge in this densely populated city of more than 7 million.

Lee represents a break with the past as the first chief executive with a career in the police force instead of a civil service or business background. He joined the force at age 20, rose through the ranks and became deputy commissioner in 2010. In 2017, Chief Executive Carrie Lam promoted Lee to secretary for security — a move that set him on a trajectory to enforce and aid Beijing’s goals to rein in Hong Kong when protests erupted.

In 2019, Lee oversaw a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and helped roll out the new national security law, which led to the arrests of more than 180 people and forced the closure of three news organizations.

Despite widespread accusations of police brutality in the crushing of the protests, no officer or government official has been held responsible for wrongdoing or investigated. Last June, Beijing appointed Lee as chief secretary, Hong Kong’s second-highest political position.

In Hong Kong crackdown, police repeatedly broke their own rules — and faced no consequences

With national security overriding Hong Kong’s governance, remaining opportunities for civic participation will continue to shrink, said Eric Yan-ho Lai, the Hong Kong law fellow at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University. Beijing will adopt a hard-line approach, allowing “no negotiations” with the West on Hong Kong issues, Lai said.

Hong Kong slammed its borders shut in 2021 to block incoming coronavirus cases and contain the outbreak within the community, alarming business groups that have warned that the ongoing restrictions are driving talent out of Hong Kong and threatening the city’s status as a financial hub.

In April, Hong Kong reopened its borders to international travelers, who must go through a compulsory seven-day hotel quarantine, and flights are still banned from certain cities. Experts have urged the government to cancel the flight suspensions as the city has reached its official vaccination target after a devastating outbreak of the omicron variant of the virus at the start of the year. Crossings to mainland China also remain closed in light of the rising number of cases there.

Coronavirus binds Hong Kong even closer to Beijing as the mainland takes lead on pandemic response

Bankers and diplomats who met with Lee said he appears to be more receptive to the concerns of the business community than Lam, the outgoing executive, according to Bloomberg News. Lee told the news media that connecting Hong Kong to the mainland is a “priority concern,” but that the government will have to “overcome barriers” as the city continues to see several hundred cases per day.

“It is important for us to all note that Hong Kong’s competitiveness hinges on remaining an international and direct gateway to the mainland. … I will work towards that goal,” Lee said, noting the “inconvenience” that closed borders have caused to business development.

As befitting the man who broke the back of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, Lee is expected to adopt a hard-line approach when it comes to maintaining stability. In 2003, the government halted the implementation of Article 23, a controversial bill that called for Hong Kong to pass its own security laws, after thousands opposed it on the streets over concern it could stifle free speech. Lee has pledged to revive it.

While the Beijing-written national security law has already effectively muzzled dissent in Hong Kong under the vaguely worded crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign power, Article 23 will focus on “state-level spying” and treason.

In an interview with local media, Lee said that the local legislation needed “to be done as quickly as possible.” Tang Ping-keung, Lee’s successor as secretary for security, has said authorities will aim to consult and introduce the drafted bill to the legislature within the year.

All eyes will also be on Lee over legislation that would allow authorities to demand that news organizations retract or correct reports, a move seen as further eradicating press freedom. When Lee was chief secretary, he said the government was conducting a legal study looking into legislation to target misinformation, but he later told the news media that “fake news” would be criminalized “only as a last resort” and that the government would prioritize a self-regulatory approach.

During his chief executive campaign, Lee said there was no need to “defend” press freedom “because it always exists.” A day later, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong suspended its Human Rights Press Awards, citing fears of unintentionally violating the security law.

Lee’s ideology-led governance style follows that of Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker and an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

“There will be spaces for discussion, but they will ultimately go along with Beijing’s standards when it comes to policymaking,” Chan said.