New HK Chief Executive John Lee Wins Unopposed Election by Vetted Electors

On Sunday, Hong Kong’s recently reorganized Electoral Committee selected John Lee to be the next Chief Executive of Hong Kong, a position that he will take over from current Chief Executive Carrie Lam on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain to China. Running unopposed and chosen by a group of “patriots” representing less than 0.02 percent of the territory’s population, Lee strolled through an election that landed far from the Basic Law’s stated goal of eventually deciding the Chief Executive via universal suffrage. The selection of Lee, a former security secretary and deputy commissioner of police with over three decades of experience in law enforcement, signals an even stronger focus on national security for the nominally semi-autonomous territory whose political freedoms have been gutted by the National Security Law. The Hong Kong Free Press described an easy victory for John Lee, who faced virtually no opposition and who vetted the very electors that voted for him:

Lee received 1,416 votes in support and eight “not support” votes from the newly-revamped Election Committee.

The committee – who were vetted by Lee himself last year – gathered on Sunday to cast their ballots in the small-circle race at Wan Chai’s Convention and Exhibition Centre. 1,428 members of the 1,461-strong committee had cast a ballot by the time polls closed at 11:30a.m. – representing a turnout rate of 97.74 per cent.

[…] The small-circle chief executive election is the first since the central government ordered an electoral overhaul – encompassing the top leadership race and the Legislative Council vote – to ensure only those showing patriotism to Hong Kong and China could run. Under the changes, chief executive hopefuls must be verified by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, which was helmed by Lee as the chief secretary.

The overhaul saw the representation of traditionally pro-democracy sectors – such as education, I.T. and the legal sector – reduced, whilst district councillors – almost exclusively pro-democracy – were excluded entirely. Most opposition figures remain behind bars, in self-exile abroad, or have quit politics following the onset of the national security law. [Source]

While the opposition was excluded from the election, as Vincent Ni from The Guardian reported, it was nonetheless represented by a small group that protested Lee’s election on Sunday:

Despite the risks, the League of Social Democrats – one of the only remaining pro-democracy groups – held a three-person protest before the polls opened Sunday, chanting: “Power to the people, universal suffrage now.”

“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like – a shrinking of our civil liberties,” said protester Vanessa Chan as dozens of police officers looked on. “We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to be completely silent.” [Source]

Other pro-democracy voices criticized Lee’s selection. Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, told DW that Lee is a “tough guy and a law enforcer that would not like to listen to other’s views, be accommodating, or be measured.” Nathan Law, an activist and former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, told the BBC that under Lee’s “hawkish” tenure, “the city will only grow more and more authoritarian.” Samuel Chu, founder of the Campaign for Hong Kong, stated: “Lee is a puppet elected through a sham process who will face no political opposition, no independent and free press, and no freedom of speech, assembly, or expression. Today, John Lee won and the people of Hong Kong lost.” At Vice, Rachel Cheung described other criticisms of Lee and the undemocratic election process:

“Beijing clearly does not bother to pretend that this is an election in any sense of the word,” Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute, told VICE World News. 

[…] “Lee has no experience in all the most important policy areas, such as economy, finance and foreign trade, or fields such as social welfare, housing, education, healthcare and labour. He has only been a cop,” said Chung Kim-wah, the former deputy head of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. “My fear is that under his rule, things will go wrong in every aspect of Hong Kong.”

“Choosing Lee as chief executive shows Beijing doesn’t mind picking a completely incapable person to do nothing but carry out its will,” Chung said.

[…] Chris Fraser, the former chair of the philosophy department at the University of Hong Kong, said the election was “merely an elaborate public confirmation ceremony for a preordained appointee.” [Source]

Reactions from abroad were similarly harsh. As the Associated Press reported, the EU and its allies called the selection process an “appointment” that violates democratic principles and erodes political rights:

The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. — called the selection process “part of a continued assault on political pluralism and fundamental freedoms.”

“The current nomination process and resulting appointment … further erode the ability of Hong Kongers to be legitimately represented. We are deeply concerned about this steady erosion of political and civil rights and Hong Kong’s autonomy,” they said in a joint statement.

[…] In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian fired back at criticism of the election from the European Union, whose foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Lee’s selection “violates democratic principles and political pluralism in Hong Kong.” Borrell said the election furthered the dismantling of the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong was supposed to retain its own political, legal and economic system for 50 years after the end of British rule. [Source]

Mainland Chinese and pro-Beijing government officials and state media, on the other hand, had only praise for the selection process and the victorious candidate, as Finbarr Bermingham reported for the South China Morning Post:

The [EU] statement was met with fury by the Commissioner’s Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, which demanded that the EU “immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs”.

According to a spokesperson from the office, the election advanced the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” and “demonstrated the progress and superiority of the new electoral system”.

Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong hailed the election as “another successful step in developing democracy with Hong Kong characteristics”.

In a 5,000-word article, the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office praised the election for its orderliness and commended Lee as a good leader for the city.

“The chief executive election was held smoothly today, and Lee was elected with a high number of votes. We congratulate him,” it said. [Source]

Lee made his priorities clear for his five-year tenure in office: “Safeguarding our country’s sovereignty, national security and development interests, and protecting Hong Kong from internal and external threats, and ensuring its stability will continue to be of paramount importance.” In his 44-page policy manifesto, released only nine days before the election, he said that a major priority would be to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, stipulating that Hong Kong should create its own laws, in addition to the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing, in order to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion. Writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher Maya Wang outlined Lee’s history of prioritizing security at the expense of citizens’ rights and safety:

As Hong Kong’s secretary for security — and therefore one of Beijing’s right-hand men in Hong Kong — during the 2019 protests against an extradition bill, Lee showed blatant disregard for people’s safety. After the police assaulted peaceful protesters on June 12, Lee claimed, contrary to what millions of Hong Kong people saw on live TV, that the police had been “tolerant,” and that it was the protesters who had “violently” attacked the police to the point of “threatening…[their lives].”

Lee has repeatedly shielded the police from accountability. Regarding public calls for an independent investigation into police brutality, he maintained that the existing complaints mechanism — one that is part of the Police Force — is adequate. As to why the elite police unit whose members had administered the worst beatings to protesters seemed to have removed their badge numbers to evade identification, Lee claimed that there was simply “no space on their uniform.”

[…] Chillingly, Lee is well-known for having praised Beijing’s severe abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims  under the guise of countering terrorism — which Human Rights Watch found amounted to crimes against humanity. According to Lee, these abusive policies are “worthy of consideration” for Hong Kong as the city faces a “growing” threat of “domestic terrorism.” [Source]

In August 2020, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Lee for his role in executing Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Several weeks ago, YouTube closed his campaign account in order to comply with those sanctions, drawing criticism from Lee and Chinese officials. Some argue that Beijing’s backing of Lee, despite American sanctions, is a way to signal disregard for U.S. attempts to pressure Hong Kong government officials and to reaffirm unity between Hong Kong and Beijing. Although Lee insists that he worked hard to win his new position, Austin Ramzy and Alexandra Stevenson of the New York Times noted that “Mr. Lee is now Beijing’s man, a security-minded official who can be relied on to follow orders and keep Hong Kong in line.”


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