Carrie Lam Exit Opens Way for Security Hardliner as Hong Kong Chief Executive

On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she would not seek reelection, marking an end to her tumultuous tenure as the leader of Hong Kong. The election of the next Chief Executive was rescheduled from March 27 to May 8 due to the pandemic, and Lam’s likely successor so far appears to be Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary John Lee, a pro-Beijing hardliner with a strong national security background. Peter Lee from the Hong Kong Free Press described Carrie Lam’s announcement during her weekly COVID-19 briefing:

“I will not run in the sixth chief executive elections,” Lam said. “In other words, I will complete my five-year chief executive term on June 30, and will officially end my 42-year career in government.”

[…] Lam went on to express her gratitude to state organs in Hong Kong including the Liaison Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Chinese provincial leaders for their “support in allowing Hong Kong to deepen its cooperation with the mainland.”

[…] Lam said she first expressed her intention to not seek re-election to Beijing in March last year. She said there was only one consideration, and it was her family. “They all thought it’s time for me to come home,” she said.

Lam said she had received “understanding and respect” for her decision from the central government. [Source]

It is not clear whether her departure was a choice of her own or dictated from Beijing. Some have pointed to her fumbled handling of the city’s fifth wave of COVID-19 as a possible last straw for her mainland government backers. Her “persistent demonstration of incompetence, most recently over the management of the COVID outbreaks, sealed her fate,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. Author and former NPR China correspondent Louisa Lim added: “Her slavish devotion to Beijing can be seen mirrored in Hong Kong’s Covid strategy, which has been characterized by numerous U-turns as well as a strenuous attempt by officials to ignore advice from medical professionals.” A Wall Street Journal editorial summarized Lam’s controversial legacy, plagued by her oversight of the National Security Law’s introduction:

The death of free Hong Kong was planned in Beijing, but Carrie Lam will go down in history as its chief executioner. On Monday she said she won’t seek a second five-year term as the city’s chief executive, but her legacy is secure.

A career civil-servant who prospered under British rule, she was obliged as governor under the city’s Basic Law to preserve the city’s autonomy (“one country, two systems”) that China promised after it took control in 1997. She failed utterly. In 2019 she frightened the public by trying to muscle through an extradition bill to subject Hong Kongers to mainland laws and courts. Millions protested and Ms. Lam backed down.

But in 2020 she swung the axe when China imposed a national-security law that outlaws dissent, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. Nearly Hong Kong’s entire political opposition has been disqualified from holding office, driven into exile, or arrested. The press has been stifled or had its assets seized, and the courts can’t be trusted. [Source]

Having served in more than 20 positions in Hong Kong’s government over 42 years, Carrie Lam will face a different lifestyle after stepping down as Chief Executive. Housing and finance, for example, may prove to be particularly complicated due to Western sanctions. As she does not hold a British passport, Lam may encounter problems should she attempt to rejoin her British-passport-holding husband and two sons in the UK, since massive petitions have called for revoking their citizenship and British lawmakers have previously threatened to sanction her. Should Lam remain in Hong Kong, purchasing a house may be a problem, since Western sanctions forced her to receive her government salary in cash. The Hong Kong Standard described how a home purchase would be difficult without bank accounts or credit cards:

According to previous declarations, Lam and her husband Lam Siu-por does not own any properties in Hong Kong. If she decides to buy a new flat, she will not be able to get any mortgage without a bank account.

In case she goes with cash, she will have to prepare a huge pile of banknotes, given properties cost at least several million HK dollars.

An alternative is for the family to live elsewhere. Lam Siu-por owns a residential flat in Zhongshan city, Guangdong province, according to declarations made earlier. [Source]

Lam’s likely replacement as Chief Executive is John Lee, who served as Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary until he resigned on Wednesday in order to run for the open position. After his long climb from a police inspector to the number two figure in government, Lee was responsible for intensifying the application of the National Security Law and cracking down on its opponents. Austin Ramzy from The New York Times reported that Lee’s pick by Beijing would signal an renewed emphasis on ensuring security in Hong Kong

Before becoming chief secretary last year, Mr. Lee, 64, had spent his entire career with Hong Kong’s security services, first with the police, eventually becoming deputy commissioner, before shifting to the city’s security bureau, which oversees the police, prisons, immigration and fire departments.

There, he became the security secretary, and then led the government’s campaign to suppress the widespread protests in 2019 against a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, which soon expanded into a broader antigovernment movement.

[…] “Beijing’s priority is to put political regime security above financial security in Hong Kong,” said Sonny Lo, a political analyst based in Hong Kong.

“It is not surprising for a security official to very likely take over the chief executive position in Hong Kong,” he added. “It conforms with the trend of securitization in mainland China in the past 10 years, especially after Xi Jinping came to power.” [Source]

Other personnel changes in Hong Kong since the National Security Law have reinforced the city’s restructuring around a securitized approach to governance. Appointments of hardliners and law enforcement figures include Zheng Yanxiong in Beijing’s Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong; Shi Kehui and Xia Baolong in the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office; Zheng Lin and Luo Huining in the Hong Kong liaison office; Chris Tang as Hong Kong’s security secretary; and Major General Peng Jingtang as the commander of Hong Kong’s PLA garrison. 

The next Hong Kong Chief Executive will be chosen by the Election Committee through an electoral process that was reformed after the National Security Law to ensure that only “patriots” will serve in office. As part of the changes, the number of members in the Election Committee was expanded from 1,200 to 1,500, and hundreds of pro-Beijing figures were appointed to these new seats at the expense of democratically-elected members. A fifth section comprising “patriotic groups” was added to the committee, and candidates for Chief Executive are required to receive nominations from at least 15 members of each section. In addition to these reforms that tilt the scales further in favor of pro-Beijing candidates, as Tony Cheung described, John Lee’s thus-far uncontested race is a bad look for Hong Kong:

Critics have suggested that the credibility of the overhauled system, and the public mandate of the next leader, would both suffer, if he or she were elected uncontested.

[…] United States-based legal scholar Michael Davis also said Lee was “clearly raised up through the ranks quickly to be where he is now to carry out Beijing’s focus on security and control as the primary policy for Hong Kong”.

But Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Beijing-based semi-official think tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said a “safe election” was Beijing’s preference for the city for this round.

“The central government cannot allow more than one strong candidate to come out as the opposition forces could make use of the opportunity to stir up trouble and undermine the patriotic camp’s unity,” he said. [Source]

A stricter focus on national security, as expected under John Lee, could further limit citizens’ civil and political rights in Hong Kong. At China File, Eric Yan-ho Lai and Thomas Kellogg recently shared data from the Georgetown Center for Asian Law demonstrating that the National Security Law has dealt a hard blow to freedom of speech, with nearly a third of all arrests under it involving speech crimes:

Our data show that the [National Security Department] has broadened the types of speech it considers dangerous, enhanced its legal toolkit for repression, and regularly detained people for extended periods with minimal judicial oversight. The NSL’s [National Security Law] enforcement has weakened Hong Kong’s civil society sector in ways that extend beyond the plight of individuals caught in its maw.

From July 1, 2020 to March 28, 2022, 183 individuals were arrested for alleged national security crimes. These arrests were mostly related to the NSL, but also to other crimes, such as sedition. This breaks down to an average of almost 9 arrests per month. Very few of these cases would constitute national security-related crimes in other rights-respecting jurisdictions. As was the case in our previous analysis of NSL arrests in May 2021, the vast majority of arrests targeted activities that would be considered peaceful and constitutionally-protected exercise of basic political and civil rights in other jurisdictions. In fact, such activities would have been protected in Hong Kong itself prior to the NSL’s enactment in July 2020.

[…] These cases make clear that limits on free speech extend well beyond a narrow list of pro-democracy slogans and calls for Hong Kong independence. They also signal that the government is adapting and expanding its censorship regime to accord with its perception of its need for social control. [Source]



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