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John Lee, Hong Kong’s security czar, became Chief Executive in Waiting

If all had gone according to plan, John Lee would now be nearing retirement after a long career as an engineer. Instead, the former Hong Kong police officer and security czar is on the verge of becoming the territory’s next chief executive.

The expected appointment of Lee, 64, as Hong Kong’s fifth chief executive since the former British colony returned under Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was all but certain this week after incumbent Carrie Lam announced she would not be running a second term of five years. Even before Lee confirmed his desire to replace her, Chinese Communist Party officials in the area directed a 1,500-seat “patriots-only” electoral committee to support him in the May 8 vote.

Assuming all goes according to plan, Lee, who is currently Hong Kong’s second highest official, will be sworn in on July 1. This falls exactly halfway through the 50 years of “one country, two systems” autonomy that Beijing has guaranteed to Hong Kong. He will inherit a city that has changed dramatically in recent years, its previously robust freedoms and boisterous civil society decimated by the national security law Imposed two years ago by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hong Kong’s status as one of the world’s major international financial centers as well hangs in the balanceas Xi’s strict “zero-Covid” pandemic controls cut it off from both the outside world and its Chinese hinterland.

“John represents the importance of security and a stable environment for Hong Kong,” said Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet advising Lam. He adds that had Beijing opted to back Lam’s Finance Secretary Paul Chan instead, it would have indicated that the Xi government would have put “financial recovery at the forefront” of Hong Kong’s political agenda. According to Tong, “John and Paul take two completely different approaches.”

From a humble background, Lee rose academically, earning a place at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Engineering. But he never took it up, instead joining the police force in 1977 right out of high school. After that, Lee disappeared into police force for nearly 40 years before entering politics late in life, where he became known as Lam’s security secretary in 2017.

“He’s been pretty unremarkable until recently; people don’t know much about him,” said Lau Chi-pang, a professor at Lingnan University who sits on the election committee that will confirm Lee’s appointment.

In a city where official wealth statements often reveal huge real estate portfolios and exclusive club memberships among officers, Lee lives in a relatively quiet neighborhood and belongs to a handful of police officer associations.

If two historic mistakes by Lam hadn’t ended her hopes of a second term, Lee might have sunk into a quiet retirement. Ironically, given his upcoming promotion, he was intimately involved in both. In 2019, Lam proposed legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China if the authorities there had wanted it. As secretary of security, Lee campaigned prominently for the controversial law.

It turned out to be a disastrous misreading of public sentiment, sparking the largest pro-democracy movement on Chinese soil since 1989 Protests in Tiananmen Square. Mass protests followed – including one that was attended estimated 2 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents. The bill was reluctantly withdrawn by the government.

Then, after Covid-19 broke out of central China in January 2020, the Lam government failed to vaccinate enough of Hong Kong’s vulnerable elderly. When previously effective territory defenses were overwhelmed by the Omicron variant earlier this year, more than 8,000 people died in just three months. By this time, Lee had been promoted to chief secretary and played a key role in the botched response.

Ultimately, Lee was rewarded for helping to crush the pro-democracy movement by correcting what Beijing saw as Lam’s first mistake. This was facilitated by the cudgel of national security law that Xi presented to him in June 2020. Lee used it without apology against pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, dozens of whom are now in prison or in exile. His promotion is a signal that Beijing sees this process as far from over.

After the Trump administration sanctioned him, Lam and other senior officials for supporting and abetting Xi’s “reduction of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” Lee replied, “I don’t care. . . I mock [the sanctions]. I despise her.”

“In the eyes of the central government, John Lee can be counted on to keep Hong Kong stable and safe from the challenges of foreign powers,” said Lau, a member of the electoral committee.

While a pro-Beijing business figure says that “knowing the ins and outs of the economy is not the right thing [Lee] is known,” he and other proponents argue that the chief executive-in-waiting can delegate economic and financial decision-making to those who do. This allows Lee to remain focused on Beijing-style security and stability, which they believe are a prerequisite for Hong Kong to emerge from its zero-Covid coma.

“It’s undeniable that business isn’t John Lee’s forte,” agrees Ip Kwok-him, a cabinet minister who believes “he’ll still run the city well.” After all, expertise in business and finance is not what China is looking for in Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

primrose.riordan@ft.com, thomas.chan@ft.com, tom.mitchell@ft.com

https://www.ft.com/content/7b2e5000-a539-4a53-8202-4809e86f399d John Lee, Hong Kong’s security czar, became Chief Executive in Waiting

Adam Bradshaw

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