John Lee: the ‘enemy’ of democracy becomes chief executive of Hong Kong

Former chief secretary takes top job in ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping

John Lee
John Lee succeeds Carrie Lam as Hong Kong's chief executive
(Image credit: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Hong Kong’s former chief secretary John Lee has been sworn in as the city’s leader on the 25th anniversary of the island’s return to Chinese rule.

The ceremony marked “a new chapter for the former British colony”, said Al Jazeera. The day started with a flag-raising ceremony next to Victoria Harbour, where much of “the pomp and circumstance” took place, said CNN.

President Xi Jinping made his first trip outside of China since the pandemic began to oversee the ceremony. He “mounted a stern defence” of the “one country two systems” model, which is supposed to see Hong Kong governed with high levels of autonomy, said the BBC. International critics have said Beijing has breached this agreement “in recent years as it tightened its grip on Hong Kong”, said CNN.

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Lee secured the top role to succeed Carrie Lam in an uncontested election – “a sore point for many HongKongers who say China has gone back on its promise to make the process fully democratic eventually”, said the BBC.

The new chief executive is “known for his tough pro-Beijing rules” and “is not exactly well-liked”, the broadcaster continued. “But this matters little in Hong Kong”, given that Lee “was essentially handpicked by Beijing”.

Officer of the law

The Global Times reported that Lee’s “sense of justice” began when he was robbed as a school student, making him aware of the importance of “good public safety” and being a law-abiding citizen.

In 1977, aged 20, he joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force as a probationary inspector, before being promoted to chief superintendent and deputy commissioner. In 2012 he moved into government when he was appointed under secretary for security and rose to become secretary for security in Lam’s administration.

During the “tumultuous protests that convulsed the territory” in 2019, said The Times, he was “uncompromisingly supportive of his former police colleagues”, adding to the “sense of grievance and alienation” among protesters.

Lee, who The Times called the “enemy of democracy protesters”, defended the police in July 2019, after they turned a blind eye while “scores of thugs indiscriminately set about passengers at a railway station with metal and wooden sticks”.

“Scores of democrats” were “arrested, jailed or forced into exile” during his tenure, said Reuters. Civil society groups were also “forced to disband and liberal media outlets raided by police and shuttered”.

In 2020, he was one of 11 individuals, including Lam, sanctioned by the US for carrying out Chinese “policies of suppression”, reported CNBC. “The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said the White House at the time.

Lee’s wife and two children hold UK citizenship, meaning Lee is eligible to claim UK citizenship again having renounced it in 2012. Despite his pro-Beijing turn, he was “known as an anglophile during British colonial rule”, Reuters added.

‘Pet-like loyalty’

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it has had four chief executives, “who all struggled to balance the democratic aspirations of some residents with the vision of China’s Communist Party leaders”, said The Straits Times.

Commentators are clear on which position they expect Lee to take. Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, wrote in The Telegraph in April that Lam “loyally discharged her orders from her masters in Beijing with shocking zeal and diligence”.

Looking ahead to the prospect of Lee succeeding her, Rogers said that Hong Kong’s “journey from one of Asia’s most open cities into one of the region’s most repressive police states will only intensify”.

Hong Kong’s chief executive has “hinted” that his leadership will prioritise security issues “above all else”, said the BBC, with critics warning that “political crackdowns will intensify under his watch”. In particular, he will focus on the enforcement of Article 23, which says that the city should enact legislation “to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against Beijing.

Lee’s critics have given him the nickname of “Pikachu”, a character from the video game series Pokémon, as both a play on his Chinese name but also in reference to “what some say is his pet-like loyalty to Beijing”.

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