by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: John Lee/Facebook
HONG KONG HAS a new political leader, with John Lee sworn into office on July 1st, which also marks the anniversary of the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong from British control to Chinese control. Marking the importance of the occasion, no less than Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong for Lee’s swearing-in ceremony. This was Xi’s first trip outside of the Chinese mainland since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee is best known for having served as Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security from 2017 to 2021, meaning that he was the police official that presided over the 2019 protests. The 2019 protests originally began in response to an extradition bill that would have allowed for Hongkongers to be extradited to China to face charges, something that it was feared would be used to target political critics of the government. While the bill was later withdrawn, the demands of the movement gradually shifted to calls for universal suffrage.
Police violence against demonstrators in 2019 was unprecedented, including beatings of unarmed protestors with batons by police in body armor, and incidents including the firing of tear gas canisters into MTR stations in which there was no way for the public to escape. In other occasions, police were accused of colluding with gangsters that targeted protesters, due to photographs of gangsters and police interacting in a friendly manner, as well as lack of police response during gangster attacks.
Lee being named as Chief Executive in the aftermath of the protests, then, was likely aimed at illustrating the consequences of resistance to Beijing. Notably, Carrie Lam, who was Chief Executive during the 2019 protests, did not run for reelection–probably because she was not allowed to by Beijing. Lam may be viewed as having failed Beijing, given her failure to pacify the Hong Kong public. Other contenders, such as Regina Ip, also did not run, perhaps because of Beijing’s mistrust of politicians in Hong Kong that have long sought office. Ip was still named to convenor of the Executive Council.
Lee won with 99% of the vote, though the Hong Kong Chief Executive is not chosen by the general public, but by a 1,500-member election committee, and Lee was the only candidate. Nevertheless, Lee still spent 1.1 million HKD on election ads, and faces scrutiny over failing to adhere to the rules for campaign ads requiring the submission of electronic copies for campaign endorsements. Though violation of such rules are normally punishable by a 5,000 HKD fine and up to six months imprisonment, Lee is facing an exemption to the rules. Lee also raised 11.3 million HKD from 58 pro-Beijing groups for his election campaign, which was more than likely a show of loyalty from such groups given that, again, Lee did not need to run a campaign.
In his speech, Lee stated that he aimed to gradually relax COVID border restrictions between Hong Kong and China, and that he intends to visit APEC, though travel plans by Lee may be affected by the fact that he is currently sanctioned by the US. Lee avoided questions from reporters about his intended timeline for legislating national security laws.
To this extent, Chinese president Xi Jinping largely did not drop any surprises during comments in Hong Kong. Xi praised the durability of One Country, Two Systems in Hong Kong, while also tasking Lee with tackling economic issues facing Hong Kong, such as unaffordable or cramped housing, lack of opportunities for business, or measures to take care of children or the elderly.
These have long been issues that have faced Hong Kong. Lee or any other Hong Kong political leader would have had to face such issues and would have probably made statements to that effect. Nevertheless, Xi may have his hopes set on that easing Hong Kong’s longstanding economic issues may pacify the restive Hong Kong public and make them loyal to the government, similar to how the Chinese government has sought to use economic incentives and subsidies to dissuade what it views as “separatist sentiment”, whether this is with regards to Taiwan or Hong Kong, or Xinjiang and Tibet.
It is to be seen, then, what comes next for Hong Kong. It is to be expected that the Lee administration will continue to take a hard line against political freedoms, however.