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John Lee Wins Hong Kong’s Rubber-Stamp Election

A government-vetted committee voted Sunday to make Mr. Lee, a former security chief, Hong Kong’s next leader. He had no opponents.

May 7, 2022

John Lee, on stage with his wife, Janet Lam, waved to members of an election committee on Sunday after they chose him to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

Isaac Lawrence for The New York Times

John Lee, a former security chief known for his staunch loyalty to the Chinese government, was chosen as Hong Kong’s next leader on Sunday, through a selection process tightly controlled by Beijing in which he was the only candidate.

Mr. Lee, 64, will replace the unpopular Carrie Lam as the chief executive, Hong Kong’s top job. Under Mrs. Lam’s watch, fierce pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2019, and China responded with a sweeping national security law that curtailed Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Mr. Lee, who was Hong Kong’s security chief for four years before being appointed last year as chief secretary, the No. 2 position in government, was a key figure in cracking down on the protests in 2019. He then helped the government wield the new security law to decimate the political opposition, leaving the most outspoken figures behind bars or in exile.

Some 1,424 members of an election committee, all vetted by the Hong Kong government, cast votes on Sunday. Mr. Lee had no opponents, and the only choice was to vote in support of him or not. Only eight people voted against him, according to the official results.

Mr. Lee waved and bowed to applauding voters after being declared the winner. “The day of the chief executive election is important to me,” he said. “But today is also Mother’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday and also World Smile Day as designated by the Red Cross. So today we can all very happily welcome such a historical day.” He called his wife, Janet Lam, to the stage and presented her with a bouquet of flowers that someone else had given him.

Mr. Lee, who will be sworn in on July 1, has said that he intends to push a package of new laws on treason, secession, sedition and subversion. The laws, known collectively as Article 23 for the section of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that mandates them, have long been a troublesome issue for Hong Kong’s leaders. The government tried to enact Article 23 legislation in 2003, only to retreat after hundreds of thousands of people turned out to protest.

This time, Mr. Lee won’t face such opposition.

The crackdown that followed the 2019 protest movement has brought Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society to heel. News outlets, unions, political parties and human rights groups have closed under government pressure and national security investigations.

Just three demonstrators protested quietly outside the convention center on Sunday, vastly outnumbered by police officers, many of whom were filming them.

In January 2021, the police arrested dozens of opposition politicians and activists, saying their electoral strategy amounted to a subversive plot. Many of them remain in custody, awaiting trial on national security charges that could lead to life imprisonment. The trial has been delayed so long that the delays drew criticism last month from a conservative judge who was handpicked by the government to oversee security trials.

Under Mr. Lee’s administration, the clampdown is expected to extend through Hong Kong’s civil service, which has come under increasing criticism from pro-Beijing politicians since some government employees joined in the 2019 protests. Its workers have also been blamed by the pro-Beijing camp for resisting efforts to carry out mainland-style coronavirus controls, such as extensive lockdowns and mandatory citywide testing.

“We need to make sure the civil service will faithfully implement the policies of the government,” said Lau Siu-kai, an adviser to Beijing on Hong Kong policy. “We need to make sure the discipline system of the civil service is tight to make sure those civil servants who won’t perform will be punished or gotten rid of.”

Tiffany May contributed reporting.

Beijing wiped out any potential opposition in the selection of the chief executive.

Police officers early Sunday outside the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibtion Center, where members of an election committee will choose the territory’s new leader. John Lee is the only candidate.

Credit...Isaac Lawrence for The New York Times

The process of selecting Hong Kong’s chief executive has always been tightly controlled. A pro-Beijing election committee picks the candidates and casts the ballots, instead of the general public.

But in this latest vote, any veneer of competition — and opposition — has been eliminated. “Beijing has completely stacked the election committee with its loyalists and further twisted the process into a meaningless competition,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

The committee that chooses the chief executive is made up of nearly 1,500 people — comprising representatives of business sectors, community associations and members of the local legislature. It used to also include members of the city’s district councils — one of the lowest elected offices in Hong Kong.

Both the legislature and the district council gave the pro-democracy camp a small voice in the process. Then, they lost it.

In 2019, the pro-democracy camp swept the majority of district council seats in an election that reflected the opposition’s strong popularity. Shortly after that, Beijing removed seats reserved for the council members and replaced them with representatives appointed by the government to local advisory groups, giving the authorities even greater control over the committee.

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997, the city has been run by two businessmen and two former civil servants. Jiang Zemin, China’s leader at the time of the handover, signaled support for Tung Chee-hwa, who became the first chief executive, by singling him out at a 1996 meeting in Beijing for a long handshake.

Since then, Beijing’s voice of support has emerged in more subtle ways, but the preferred pick is well known by the time of the vote. Even so, there usually are multiple candidates on the ballot.

Not this year. John Lee is the only candidate to secure enough nominations from the election committee. And the entire process has taken just over a month since Carrie Lam, who became chief executive in 2017, announced on April 4 that she would not seek re-election.

“What we have here is a selection of a candidate — John Lee — by Beijing, followed by a ratification by the election committee,” said Mr. Diamond. “Even in Iran, there is more of a contest for the head of government.”

— Austin Ramzy

Outside the polling site, three pro-democracy protesters try to keep dissent alive.

As the police watched, three activists held a banner calling for universal suffrage outside the Hong Kong convention center on Sunday.

Isaac Lawrence for The New York Times

HONG KONG — It was a far cry from the huge pro-democracy protests that Hong Kong saw just a few years ago.

Outside the convention center where about 1,500 people would soon elect John Lee — the lone candidate — as the city’s top official, three members of the League of Social Democrats carried a banner calling for universal suffrage on Sunday morning.

“Even though we are only three people, I firmly believe we can represent the majority of Hong Kongers to express our discontent with a procedural election.” said one of them, Chan Po-ying, the group’s chairwoman.

A few passers-by watched from a distance as Ms. Chan, Dickson Chau and Yu Wai-pan walked across a footbridge to the polling site. They were flanked by dozens of police and plainclothes officers, many of whom were filming them with camcorders and body cameras.

Inside the sprawling convention center in the Wan Chai district, Mr. Lee greeted the voters — all vetted by the Hong Kong government — as they approached the tented polling station.

“I know it looks like, ‘Oh my God, one candidate,’” one of them, Allan Zeman, a property developer, said in an interview. “In this case, one candidate, if he is good, is all you need.”

Mr. Zeman pointed to Mr. Lee’s background as a police officer, saying that he was “results-oriented” and well-trained in crisis management. “He will change the bureaucracy we’ve had in the government for so long,” Mr. Zeman added.

Tik Chi-yuen, the only member of Hong Kong’s legislature who belongs to a centrist party, said he would vote for Mr. Lee even though he was dissatisfied with his campaign promises. “The election campaign of Mr. Lee is too rushed, he cannot present himself very well about how to manage the future Hong Kong and have a detailed plan,” said Mr. Tik, a social worker. He said that he was disappointed that Mr. Lee had not prioritized political reforms that could lead to freer elections.

“Many people in Hong Kong expect we have democracy development. This is the request of the Hong Kong people,” Mr. Tik said. “Although it is not Mr. Lee’s priority, he and the new government will have to handle the issue. Otherwise the Hong Kong people will not be satisfied with this.”

Outside, a woman named Lily Lee rushed past the convention center on her way to a facial appointment. “I haven’t paid much attention to the election,” she said. “It’s just one candidate, so only he can get elected.”

“I hope he can do a good job,” she added.

— Tiffany May


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