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John Lee, Hong Kong’s safety tsar turned chief executive-in-waiting


If all had gone in line with plan, John Lee would now be nearing retirement after a protracted profession in engineering. Instead, the previous Hong Kong policeman and safety tsar stands on the cusp of changing into the territory’s subsequent chief govt.

The anticipated appointment of Lee, 64, as Hong Kong’s fifth chief govt because the former British colony reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 was all however assured this week after the incumbent, Carrie Lam, introduced that she wouldn’t search a second five-year time period. Even earlier than Lee confirmed his need to exchange her, the Chinese Communist get together’s representatives within the territory instructed a 1,500-seat, “patriots only” election committee to again him within the May 8 vote.

Assuming all the pieces goes as scripted, Lee, who’s presently Hong Kong’s second highest rating official, can be sworn in on July 1. This falls exactly midway by means of the 50 years of “one country, two systems” autonomy that Beijing assured to Hong Kong. He will inherit a metropolis that has modified dramatically over latest years, its beforehand sturdy freedoms and boisterous civil society decimated by the nationwide safety legislation imposed two years in the past by Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Hong Kong’s standing as one of many world’s nice worldwide monetary centres additionally hangs within the stability, as Xi’s strict “zero-Covid” pandemic controls minimize it off from each the surface 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 cupboard that advises Lam. He provides that had Beijing opted as a substitute to again Lam’s monetary secretary, Paul Chan, it might have indicated Xi’s administration was “putting financial recovery at the forefront” of Hong Kong’s coverage agenda. According to Tong, “John and Paul represent two entirely different approaches.”

From a modest background, Lee excelled academically and earned a spot with the engineering school on the University of Hong Kong. But he by no means took it up, as a substitute becoming a member of the police pressure straight out of highschool in 1977. After that, Lee all however disappeared into the pressure for the higher a part of 40 years earlier than a late entry into politics wherein he rose to prominence as Lam’s safety 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 may rubber-stamp Lee’s appointment.

In a metropolis the place official asset declarations typically reveal huge property portfolios and unique membership memberships amongst public servants, Lee has one condominium in a comparatively quiet neighbourhood and belongs to a handful of police officer associations.

If it weren’t for 2 historic blunders by Lam that ended her hope of serving a second time period, Lee may need light away right into a quiet retirement. Ironically, in mild of his imminent promotion, he was carefully concerned in each. In 2019 Lam proposed laws that will have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China if needed by the authorities there. As safety secretary, Lee lobbied prominently for the controversial invoice.

It proved to be a disastrous misreading of the general public temper, sparking the most important pro-democracy motion on Chinese soil because the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Mass protests ensued — together with one attended by an estimated 2mn of Hong Kong’s 7.5mn inhabitants. The invoice was reluctantly withdrawn by the federal government.

Then, after Covid-19 erupted out of central China in January 2020, Lam’s administration didn’t vaccinate sufficient of Hong Kong’s weak aged. When the territory’s beforehand efficient defences had been overwhelmed by the Omicron variant earlier this 12 months, greater than 8,000 folks died in solely three months. By this time Lee had been promoted to chief secretary and performed a key position within the bungled response.

Ultimately Lee has been rewarded for serving to to crush the pro-democracy motion, correcting, in Beijing’s eyes, Lam’s first mistake. This was made simpler by the nationwide safety legislation bludgeon Xi handed him in June 2020. Lee has unapologetically deployed it in opposition to pro-democracy legislators and activists, dozens of whom at the moment are in jail or exile. His promotion is a sign that Beijing views this course of as removed from over.

After the Trump administration sanctioned him, Lam and different senior officers 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 enterprise determine says that “knowing the ins and outs of the economy isn’t what [Lee] is known for”, he and different supporters argue that the chief executive-in-waiting can delegate financial and monetary decision-making to individuals who do. That manner, Lee can proceed to concentrate on the safety and stability — Beijing type — that they consider 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 cupboard member, who believes “he will lead the city well” regardless. Expertise in economics and finance, in any case, isn’t what China is in search of in Hong Kong’s subsequent chief govt.

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



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