If all had gone according to plan, John Lee would now be nearing retirement after a long career in engineering. Instead, the former Hong Kong policeman and security tsar stands on the cusp 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 reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was all but assured this week after the incumbent, Carrie Lam, announced that she would not seek a second five-year term. Even before Lee confirmed his desire to replace her, the Chinese Communist party’s representatives in the territory instructed a 1,500-seat, “patriots only” election committee to back him in the May 8 vote.
Assuming everything goes as scripted, Lee, who is currently Hong Kong’s second highest ranking official, will be sworn in on July 1. This falls precisely halfway through the 50 years of “one country, two systems” autonomy that Beijing guaranteed to Hong Kong. He will inherit a city that has changed dramatically over 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 great international financial centres also hangs in the balance, as Xi’s strict “zero-Covid” pandemic controls cut it off from both the outside world and its Chinese hinterland.
“John signifies the importance of security and a stable environment for Hong Kong,” says Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet that advises Lam. He adds that had Beijing opted instead to back Lam’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, it would have indicated Xi’s administration was “putting financial recovery at the forefront” of Hong Kong’s policy agenda. According to Tong, “John and Paul represent two entirely different approaches.”
From a modest background, Lee excelled academically and earned a place with the engineering faculty at the University of Hong Kong. But he never took it up, instead joining the police force straight out of high school in 1977. After that, Lee all but disappeared into the force for the better part of 40 years before a late entry into politics in which he rose to prominence as Lam’s security secretary in 2017.
“He has been fairly low profile until recently; people don’t know a lot about him,” says Lau Chi-pang, a professor at Lingnan University who sits on the election committee that will rubber-stamp Lee’s appointment.
In a city where official asset declarations often reveal vast property portfolios and exclusive club memberships among public servants, Lee has one apartment in a relatively quiet neighbourhood and belongs to a handful of police officer associations.
If it were not for two historic blunders by Lam that ended her hope of serving a second term, Lee might have faded away into a quiet retirement. Ironically, in light of his imminent promotion, he was closely involved in both. In 2019 Lam proposed legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China if wanted by the authorities there. As security secretary, Lee lobbied prominently for the controversial bill.
It proved to be a disastrous misreading of the public mood, sparking the biggest pro-democracy movement on Chinese soil since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Mass protests ensued — including one attended by an estimated 2mn of Hong Kong’s 7.5mn population. The bill was reluctantly withdrawn by the government.
Then, after Covid-19 erupted out of central China in January 2020, Lam’s administration failed to vaccinate enough of Hong Kong’s vulnerable elderly. When the territory’s previously effective defences were overwhelmed by the Omicron variant earlier this year, more than 8,000 people died in only three months. By this time Lee had been promoted to chief secretary and played a key role in the bungled response.
Ultimately Lee has been rewarded for helping to crush the pro-democracy movement, correcting, in Beijing’s eyes, Lam’s first mistake. This was made easier by the national security law bludgeon Xi handed him in June 2020. Lee has unapologetically deployed it against pro-democracy legislators and activists, dozens of whom are now in prison or exile. His promotion is a signal that Beijing views this process as far from over.
After the Trump administration sanctioned him, Lam and other senior officials for aiding and abetting Xi’s “degradation of Hong Kong’s autonomy”, Lee responded: “I don’t care . . . I scoff at [the sanctions]. I despise them.”
“In the eyes of the central government John Lee can be relied on to keep Hong Kong stable and safe from the challenges posed by foreign powers,” says Lau, the election committee member.
While one pro-Beijing business figure says that “knowing the ins and outs of the economy isn’t what [Lee] is known for”, he and other supporters argue that the chief executive-in-waiting can delegate economic and financial decision-making to people who do. That way, Lee can continue to focus on the security and stability — Beijing style — that they believe is a prerequisite if Hong Kong is to emerge from its zero-Covid coma.
“It is undeniable that economics is not John Lee’s strength,” agrees Ip Kwok-him, a cabinet member, who believes “he will lead the city well” regardless. Expertise in economics and finance, after all, is not what China is seeking in Hong Kong’s next chief executive.