Hong Kong, a sheriff as Chief Executive?

On May 8, after a postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hongkongers will have a new city’s governor who, most likely, will be John Lee, whose notoriety has been central for promoting Hong Kong's extradition bill

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the transfer of the former British colony’s sovereignty to the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong is getting ready to elect its new Chief Executive. On May 8, indeed, after a postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Hongkongers will have a new city’s governor who, most likely, will be John Lee. Rumours were already in the air, when the latter handed his resignation as Chief Secretary to Carrie Lam, current Chief Executive. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise when Lee submitted his nomination forms for the candidacy last Wednesday morning. In a 5-minute press conference held on April 6, during which the journalists had no chance to ask questions, Lee announced his candidacy himself by giving a speech in which he defined “glorious” serving the government for more than 40 years.

Who is John Lee?

A long career paved the way for John Lee's current success. In 1977, at the young age of 22, he joined the police force, holding the position of inspector at the Royal Hong Kong Police Force. His career has then evolved, first becoming Chief Superintendent in 1997, then Deputy Commissioner in 2003, Senior Deputy Commissioner in 2007 and finally Deputy Commissioner in 2010. It was in 2012 that his career shifted from the disciplinary forces to politics: firstly, as Undersecretary of Security by then Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and then promoted to Security Secretary in July 2017 for the administration of Carrie Lam.

John Lee’s notoriety has been central to the Hong Kong people chiefly since 2019, when he played a pivotal role in promoting Hong Kong's extradition bill. The latter provoked a wave of protests which was quelled with the following National Security Act. He was finally appointed as Chief Secretary on July, 25th 2021.

This Act, according to some critics, has marked the “end of Hong Kong”, since it strictly curtails the freedoms of people, it undermines Hong Kong's autonomy or its independent judiciary. While the population feared this manoeuvre, Chinese leadership has interpreted it as a proof of loyalty of the Chief Secretary towards Beijing.

In light of the so-called Milk Tea Alliance, that is the online democracy and human rights movement which then evolved into actual protests against authoritarianism in 2020, China could not accept these anti-China and pro-democracy movements and felt that something had to be done. It is necessary to remember that in 1997 Hong Kong was handed back to China under an agreement based on a sort of mini-constitution called Basic Law and the so-called "One country, two systems" principle. This agreement grants the ex-colony a certain extent of freedoms that are not applicable in the mainland; however, according to the Basic Law, Chinese laws will prevail in some specific cases, in particular those related to foreign policy. Therefore, in that context of protests, China decided it was time to step in and make sure that the Region had a legal framework to handle the breaches into its authority.

Keeping this in mind might somehow help us understand why John Lee received Xi Jinping's blessing. As a matter of fact, choosing the city’s top security official shows the Chinese number one priority towards the Special Administrative Region, that is national security, more than the economy or the internal crisis. In this regard, as the political science professor Ivan Choy puts it, Lee represents the fundamental elements deriving from the disciplinary forces: loyalty, implementation and discipline. The need for this might also be a sign of the lack of trust by the Chinese Communist Party towards both the people of Hong Kong and the local executive. Last but not least, John Lee has been described by some of his former police colleagues as an introverted person, not much inclined to be a leader, which makes him the perfect candidate to lead the country under Xi Jinping’s authority.

The election of the Chief Executive

Since the handover in 1997, Hongkongers have not had a direct say in the election of the Chief Executive; indeed, the choice is made by a small committee of society stakeholders called the Election Committee. The latter went through some changes last year by the Chinese Assembly, starting from the expansion of its members from 1200 to 1500, as well as the addition of new strict measures in order to have further control over the candidates to make sure they would fulfil the criteria of loyalty and “patriotism”. Therefore, albeit the Committee conducts its election, the actual choice is made by Beijing.

Finally, notwithstanding that, Lee is running alone, with no competitors, he stated that this does not make the run easier considering the time and effort needed for the campaign. This is also why his manifesto has not been published yet.

While the government of Carrie Lam, who announced her intention not to run for a second term on April 4, has had to go through protests and an inefficient handling of the pandemic, from next month, a brand new leadership can be expected, guided by a former police officer who will guide the country as a true sheriff.

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