Former security chief John Lee Ka-chiu is set to replace Carrie Lam as the new mayor. He had no opponents. The effects of his appointment by Beijing are profound, analyzes Hong Kong exile Ray Wong. He fears that the personal details indicate Beijing’s plans to further restrict freedoms in the city.
As a Hong Kong activist in exile, I was initially relieved to hear that controversial Prime Minister Carrie Lam was stepping down from office. Lam’s pro-Beijing policies sparked the momentous pro-democracy protests of 2019.
However, a new head of government does not mean that Hong Kong will return to the city it once was, nor will the new government end its repression of civil society. But on the contrary. The appointment of John Lee Ka-chui as Lam’s successor suggests that Beijing will continue its repression in Hong Kong for the next five years.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed developments in Hong Kong over the past few years that Beijing did not give Carrie Lam the green light to her second term. It has failed many, if not all, of Beijing’s expectations: it has failed to push forward with China to change the extradition law. Her no-holds-barred approach to anti-government protests in 2019 has seen more Hong Kong people siding with the pro-democracy movement.
Ray Wong is a Hong Kong activist in exile who was granted asylum by Germany in 2018. He is currently studying in Göttingen.
As of early May, their poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than 9,000 deaths in just five months and seriously threatened Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial hub. According to a report published in March 2022 by the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, almost half of European companies are considering relocating in the next few years.
Under Lam’s government, Beijing has blatantly undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of the “one country, two systems” principle. In June 2020, the National People’s Congress directly introduced the infamous so-called “National Security Law” for Hong Kong.
The following year, Beijing pushed through a “patriotic” electoral reform in Hong Kong, allowing only Beijing-approved candidates to run for office. Under the new rules, all elections – whether for county councils, the Legislative Council or the Chief Executive – are closed a pure farce.
On May 8, 2022, a government-appointed electoral committee elected former security chief John Lee Ka-chiu as Hong Kong’s next chief. Lee has earned a reputation as a hardliner, overseeing the 2019 crackdown on anti-government protests and making extensive use of the draconian “National Security Law” Beijing introduced in 2020 to target pro-democracy dissidents.
Armed with the ability to impose a tougher stance in the city, Beijing sees Lee as ideal for achieving what the pro-Beijing camp often describes as “political and social stability after a period of turbulence.” This is especially important as the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be held later this year.
The fact that Lee, unlike in all previous prime ministerial elections, was unopposed suggests that Beijing doesn’t even need to bother to maintain Hong Kong’s democratic semblance.
Throughout his career in the security services, Lee has always been hostile to civil society and anyone who supports the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. When I announced the approval of my asylum application in Germany in 2019, Lee accused the German decision of being unfounded and ill-considered. He assured that the Hong Kong police would take “all means” against me.
With the “National Security Law” the incumbent government has arrested almost all pro-democracy politicians and activists. Most of my fellow activists in Hong Kong are either in prison or awaiting trial. In addition to political figures, the national security police also pursues media and civil society organizations critical of the government.
Apple Daily and Stand News, popular pro-democracy outlets, were forced to shut down last year. The space for the opposition, if there is any, is becoming increasingly limited.
Despite this powerful law, Beijing does not seem content with the number of tools it has to suppress the freedoms and rights of the Hong Kong people. During his sham campaign in April this year, Lee reiterated that he would prioritize national security legislation through Article 23 of the city’s constitution. This article states that the Hong Kong government “autonomously enacts laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the central people’s government”.
In an interview with China’s Phoenix TV last summer, Lee, then chief secretary of administration, said the existing national security law is far from sufficient to ensure it. Therefore, he is currently preparing an internal security law based on Article 23, which will allow the government to dominate even the most difficult and extreme situations.
“The city,” Lee said, “must remain vigilant against underground terrorist activity.” He added that there is still support for Hong Kong independence and violence. It is therefore urgently necessary to stop the spread of these ideas.
Unlike Carrie Lam, who comes from the civil service class, as a career police officer, John Lee has no other power base than the security services. He is not allied with the executive branch and the civil service class, nor with the local tycoons. That makes him dependent on Beijing’s power.
It is even speculated that Lee’s steady rise from a middle-ranking police officer to a political official in charge of the city’s security department and then to Lam’s deputy as chief secretary is due to his secret membership in the Chinese Communist Party and active support of Beijing in the over the years.
Normally, a government’s lack of local support would only hamper policy development and implementation. However, Hong Kong is not the same as before. Beijing expects Hong Kong’s prime minister to show absolute loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. The chief executive’s role has shifted from running one of the world’s global financial centers to being the top loyalist to Beijing, allowing the central government to maximize its influence in Hong Kong.
The text is an excerpt from the China Bulletin of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.