or the first time in its history since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997, Hong Kong has got a police officer of China as its new Chief Executive through an election May 8. The 64-year-old John Lee will take charge July 1. The election is not a democratic exercise through universal suffrage, but the product of Hong Kong’s new electoral policies unveiled last March. Under the new system, the voting was done by a 1,500-member Electoral Commission stacked with nominees from Beijing. Lee is a favourite of Beijing for his repressive measures taken during pro-democracy protests in 2019 to stifle the voice of protest. Predictably, he got 99 per cent of the votes. He was the deputy chief of Hong Kong’s police force and was instrumental in the brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists and closure of some media outlets known for taking a stance independent of Beijing.
As the sole Beijing-approved candidate to replace the incumbent Carrie Lam, Lee’s victory was a foregone conclusion the moment he announced his candidacy. Previous elections had seen multi-cornered contests with several candidates for Hong Kong’s top job. But this year, Lee was the only person Beijing apparently deemed sufficiently loyal to China’s Communist Party under its new electoral policies for Hong Kong.
Since 2019, the Chinese government has instituted laws and policies which have eroded the relative autonomy that Hong Kong enjoyed after the territory was returned from the UK to China. Protests erupted against changes to extradition laws that would allow Hong Kong residents involved in alleged crimes to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The protesters were infuriated since that form of extradition only meant they would be subjected to China’s autocratic laws contrary to the freedom they had so long enjoyed. Those protests were effective and they delayed the extradition laws. But, eventually a National Security Law was enacted and pro-democracy activists, Opposition politicians and business leaders were arrested. Since then a “climate of fear” has been prevailing in the city, breaking the backbone of democratic resistance movement.
The government in mainland China also instituted several reforms to Hong Kong’s governing structure, which only strengthened China’s iron grip over Hong Kong. Twelve pro-democracy candidates were barred from running in the 2020 Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s legislature) elections, which were then postponed until December 2021. In the meantime, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), with Lam’s help, instituted changes to Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the city’s governing charter — ensuring that a greater proportion of seats would be allocated to those friendly towards China. The Standing Committee of the NPC also created an institution to vet potential political candidates. This is called the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee (CERC). Lee was the chair of the CERC till April 7.
Lee had worn more than one hat for managing affairs in Hong Kong as Beijing’s most trusted hand. After performing the tasks he had been assigned as deputy chief of police force, he was elevated to the position of Chief Secretary for Hong Kong Administration. This was the second-most powerful position in the government. During his tenure, Hong Kong police were strongly criticised for using excessive force, such as deploying rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, while occasionally using live ammunition against protesters. Of course, Lee had his defence and made it clear that the use of force and the response to the protest, including the National Security Law, had helped “restore stability from chaos.” He has spelt out his plan to enact legislation that will “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion,” which is legal under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, to banish the thoughts of “Hong Kong independence, violence and extremism.”
For his coercive policies undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him, Lam and other government officials. His role in arresting, detaining and imprisoning individuals as per the provisions of the National Security Law was widely condemned.
As Chief Executive, Lee will have to rebuild Hong Kong’s economy reeling under the effects of the National Security Law and the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. His lack of experience in such tasks may be a great handicap for him. The American Chamber of Commerce last year showed that 40 per cent of expatriates were considering leaving Hong Kong due to the National Security Law and many international companies moved their operations elsewhere. The pandemic shut off the city. The zero-COVID policy employed by the Chinese government has added to the exodus, with more than 150,000 people leaving since the beginning of 2022.
As per indications, Lee is said to try and tide over these difficulties by linking Hong Kong to the trade and commerce circuits of mainland China far more aggressively than before. It appears the Sinofication of Hong Kong will be accelerated under Lee. However, historically Hong Kong has occupied a unique position in global trade and commerce for centuries. The geographical position of the island and its status as an independent territory had helped it achieve the coveted position that it was known for. When the British left the administration of the island after the expiry of the term of agreement with China, the world hoped that Hong Kong will be safeguarded by Beijing. The policies of the People’s Republic of China looked more relaxed and tolerant two decades ago. The situation seems to have changed for the worse. An intolerant China in relation to Hong Kong seems similar to a war mongering Russia in relation to Ukraine.