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John Lee. Picture: BLOOMBERG.
John Lee. Picture: BLOOMBERG.

John Lee became the only candidate for Hong Kong’s top post by proving his willingness to loyally execute Beijing’s demands, despite an international outcry. The question now is whether he can convince China that re-opening the Asian financial centre to the world won’t jeopardise its control. 

Lee, a former police inspector and security minister, emerged as a leading advocate for cracking down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition over the past three years, defending the police’s use of force against protesters and warning that those who supported the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper would “pay a hefty price.” Such hard-line positions were central to Beijing’s decision to anoint him as the sole candidate in the CE's election on Sunday, according to interviews with 10 members of the committee appointed to ratify the choice.

An impartial gentleman

At the same time, bankers, diplomats, politicians and others who’ve met privately with Lee say he’s been even-handed and receptive to the concerns of the business community in the beleaguered former British colony. While most expect him to hold fast to China’s sweeping view of national security, they say he appears more responsive to suggestions than outgoing CE Carrie Lam, who is deeply unpopular after a single five-year term. 

One Hong Kong-based diplomat said Lee, 64, has come off during several meetings as a “gentleman” and appears to know how to balance his views. A member of Hong Kong’s international business community said he was open to meeting up and hearing concerns. Hendrick Sin, a former HSBC Holdings Plc banker and co-founder of locally listed CMGE Technology Group, said Lee was a “good listener and able to analyse quickly.”

“Without strong ties or entangled relationships with business circles and real-estate tycoons, he is seen as impartial — and that is a plus,” said Sin, who nominated Lee for the Election Committee’s (EC’s) innovation and technology sector. “Hong Kong needs to be united, working towards different goals to face its tremendous challenges.”

Most of those interviewed, including several others who worked with Lee at various stages of his rise through government but aren’t members of the EC, asked not to be identified by name, because they weren’t authorised to speak on his behalf.  

The tasks awaiting Lee when he takes office on July 1 are monumental, with President Xi Jinping looking to use the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule to demonstrate his success in rolling back foreign influence in the city. Beijing’s increasing willingness to dictate local policies — imposing a national security law and its Covid Zero virus strategy — has shaken confidence in the city’s future as a global finance hub. 

Hong Kong's leaders struggled have struggled to balance the political desires of its 7.4-million people with China’s demands for control

Lee pledged in his campaign platform last week to enhance Hong Kong’s status as international business centre, while cautiously charting a path forward towards managing Covid-19 in a city still without quarantine-free travel to either the mainland or the rest of the world. On Thursday, he said reopening the border was “the first task on my mind” and he would seek to “remove the obstacles to satisfy the requirements” for doing so, without elaborating.

“I know that the current measures are causing some inconvenience,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post. “The current government is taking action to balance the measures against the need for economic development.”

Even before Hong Kong came under greater scrutiny during a wave of sometimes-violent democracy protests in 2019, its leaders struggled to balance the political desires of its 7.4-million people with China’s demands for control. No CE has managed to serve two five-year terms. Some 24% of the public has confidence in Lee, compared with 12% for Lam, according to a survey in March by the Hoong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI).

A decision in response to Western criticism

Beijing settled on Lee “very late” in the process, in a decision that was likely influenced by the West’s criticism of China’s position on Ukraine, said three pro-establishment politicians familiar with the situation. Lee — who, like Lam, is already facing US sanctions over his role in cracking down on the democratic opposition — was seen as more firm than other contenders such as finance secretary Paul Chan, one of the politicians said. 

A former opposition lawmaker now living overseas described Lee as an “executioner” who was prepared to do whatever was asked, and said his selection showed Beijing’s desire to move away from career administrative officers like Lam. Choosing Chan or another similar candidate might have been misinterpreted as a sign that the security drive was winding down, said the ex-lawmaker.

Similarly, Hong Kong can’t completely abandon China's Covid Zero policy, which Chinese officials attribute directly to Xi and cite as an example of the advantages of their authoritarian model over fractious Western democracies. While the city has loosened some restrictions compared to China, including allowing non-residents to enter as of May 1 2022, it continues to require quarantines of seven days. 

“It seems doubtful he’ll be able to fully satisfy Beijing’s anxieties about national security and, at the same time, address the concerns of companies and professionals who operate globally,” said Michael Davis, a law and international affairs professor at OP Jindal Global University in India and a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). “Beijing has seemed willing to put Hong Kong’s financial, human rights, public health, rule of law and reputational concerns in second place behind what it perceives as national security threats.”

The making of Lee

Lee this week revealed that he’s Catholic, similar to Lam, which is notable given the Communist Party’s restrictions on religion. He grew up in public housing before joining the police force as a probationary inspector in 1977, and earned a master’s degree in public policy and administration from Charles Sturt University in Australia. 

As chief superintendent of the criminal investigation unit, Lee helped Guangdong police investigate the kidnapping of billionaire Li Ka-shing’s eldest son, Victor, in the late 1990s, according to a person who worked under Lee as a police officer on the case.

The case foreshadowed future battles over Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, after Chinese authorities decided to try, and ultimately execute, the defendant on the mainland. Victor Li, who’s now chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings, was among the first tycoons to voice support for Lee’s candidacy as CE last month.

In 2012, then CE Leung Chun-ying, whose father had been a police officer, brought Lee into the government as undersecretary for security. Lam promoted him into her cabinet as security secretary five years later, where he was central to advocating extradition legislation that prompted antigovernment rallies of more than a million people in 2019. Early on in the protests, he joined Lam in apologising for the bill and the “controversies and rifts it has caused in society.”

As Xi’s government lost patience with the increasingly violent demonstrations, Lee followed Lam in taking a harsher tone against the protests and defending police efforts to sweep activists from the streets. Lee became a chief proponent of the Beijing-drafted national security law that has resulted in the arrests of some 182 people, the closure of at least a dozen news organisations and the dissolution of some of the city’s largest labour unions.

The Chinese government fuelled speculation that Lee would succeed Lam in June 2021 when it approved his promotion as chief secretary for administration, the city’s number-two position. An overhaul of the local election system ensured that Beijing would face even less opposition from the committee of some 1,460 insiders who must sign off on candidates. 

Soon after Lam’s April 4 announcement that she wouldn’t seek a second term, China’s Liaison Office circulated word that Lee would be the sole candidate and informed voters when they could pledge their support, according to two EC members who asked not to be identified, because they weren’t authorised to discuss internal deliberations. A third voter asked not to nominate Lee to avoid making the process look illegitimate. 

Lee received 786 nominations from the panel, 35 more than the number of votes he needs to win in Sunday’s election. What remains to be seen is whether such support from Beijing gives Lee more freedom to seek compromise on thorny issues, such as Covid Zero and concerns about foreign influence. 

“John Lee has said he’s very concerned about ensuring Hong Kong’s reputation as an international centre is maintained,” said George Cautherley, vice-chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce — Hong Kong (ICC-HK). “To do that, you’re going to have to take a much more pragmatic attitude towards how you handle the borders. Well, let’s see. It’s quite difficult.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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