The ex-security chief is set to become Hong Kong’s next leader
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Hong Kong (AFP) – A former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement is expected to be named the new chief business center on Sunday by a small committee of Beijing supporters.
John Lee, 64, was the only candidate in a Beijing-backed one-horse race to succeed incumbent leader Carrie Lam.
His elevation will put a security official in the top job for the first time after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and debilitating pandemic controls.
Despite the city’s mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, the source of years of frustration and public protests since handover to China in 1997.
Instead, its leader is chosen by an “electoral committee” currently made up of 1,461 people, or about 0.02% of the city’s population.
This committee, made up of political and business elites whose loyalty has been verified, began voting on Sunday morning at an exhibition center on the city’s port.
Lee must secure a simple majority, but with no rivals his rise is all but guaranteed. Results are expected later Sunday.
Strong police presence
Demonstrations have been largely banned in Hong Kong, with authorities using an anti-coronavirus ban on public gatherings of more than four people as well as a new national security law.
Police surrounded the fairgrounds with security, and 6,000 to 7,000 officers had been put on standby, according to local media.
The League of Social Democrats – one of the only remaining pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong – staged a three-person protest before the polls opened, chanting “Power to the people, universal suffrage now”.
“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like, a narrowing of our civil liberties,” protester Vanessa Chan said as dozens of police watched.
“We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to remain completely silent,” she added.
Under President Xi Jinping, China is reshaping Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
Beijing has rolled out a sweeping security law to stamp out dissent and introduced a new “patriots-only” political system for Hong Kong to ensure anyone running for office is seen as suitably loyal.
Insiders say Lee’s unwavering commitment to this campaign won China’s trust at a time when other Hong Kong elites were seen as insufficiently loyal or competent.
“He is a man who has stood the test,” former security minister Lai Tung-kwok told AFP recently.
A troubled city
Lee, who spent 35 years in the Hong Kong police force before joining the government, inherits a troubled city.
While the democracy movement has been crushed, much of the population still resents Beijing’s regime and resents the city’s entrenched inequality.
Hong Kong is also facing economic hardship thanks to two years of tough pandemic restrictions that have damaged its reputation as a business hub and cut off its residents as rivals reopen.
Under the slogan “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together,” Lee pledged to establish “results-oriented” governance, forge unity and revive the city’s economy.
A 44-page manifesto it released last week stuck to broad goals and offered few concrete policies or targets.
Lee said he would reveal more details during his first political speech.
Hong Kong’s business leaders find themselves caught between the democratic aspirations of the city’s residents and the authoritarian demands of Beijing’s rulers.
They are rarely popular and none have managed to complete two terms since the handover.
Outgoing leader Carrie Lam is set to leave office with record approval ratings.
According to a March poll by the Public Opinion Research Institute, around 24% of the public trust Lee, compared to 12% for Lam.
Lee will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China.
China has agreed that Hong Kong could retain certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after regaining control from Britain under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Beijing and Lee say the formula is still intact.
Critics, including many Western powers, say it was shredded.
Lee is one of 11 senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials sanctioned by the United States over political repression.
© 2022 AFP