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John Lee, Hong Kong's former security chief and chief secretary, looks poised to win the city's top job.   © Reuters
Asia Insight

Hong Kong fears run deep as John Lee aims to take charge

Police vet emerges as China's pick to lead a public wary of security law

PAK YIU, Nikkei staff writer | Hong Kong

HONG KONG -- The martial arts scene in Hong Kong has spawned legends and blockbuster movies. Last month brought a twist when a coach and his female assistant were arrested and accused of planning to "build an army" against the state.

Police said they confiscated an array of weapons including swords, knives, crossbows and an air gun. They also said they found anti-Chinese Communist Party posts on the training center's Facebook page.

Whatever the merits of the case may be, it illustrates the fears lurking beneath Hong Kong's veneer of calm.

The air is no longer thick with tear gas. The streets no longer seethe with protesters like they did in 2019. Yet the local and central governments seem afraid that a significant segment of the population is out to get them. Citizens, in turn, fear the Beijing-imposed national security law and the risk of winding up in prison for saying the wrong thing.

It is in this fraught environment that a new chief executive is due to be chosen on May 8, now that incumbent Carrie Lam has declared she will not seek reelection. John Lee, a veteran police officer who until last week was Lam's second-in-command as chief secretary, appears likely to be the only hopeful with enough backing to officially run.

So far, the hard-liner is the sole candidate that has the all-important support of the Chinese government, people on the election committee told Nikkei Asia. The chief executive is chosen not by the public but by the nearly 1,500 members of the Beijing-controlled committee.

"He will be the one and only candidate," one committee member predicted.

The 64-year-old Lee's career has focused exclusively on policing and security. He has little experience relevant to the finance and business sectors that power the economy, nor knowledge of social issues such as housing. His rise is unlikely to restore waning global confidence in the financial hub's reputation, business executives and bankers told Nikkei Asia.

"The optics aren't great," one finance executive said.

Lee told reporters that "there is no person who is a know-all for everything" and vowed to build a team with experienced and knowledgeable officials "who have the passion to do things for Hong Kong." His campaign team includes mostly pro-Beijing political heavyweights and Bank of East Asia's co-chief executive Brian Li.

If Lee is ultimately elected, it could speak volumes about what is in store for the city of 7.4 million.

It means the central government "still worries about national security or the political environment in Hong Kong," said assistant professor Liu Dongshu from City University of Hong Kong's Public Policy Department. He added that Beijing "is concerned about Hong Kong's position, Hong Kong being used by the United States, or the so-called 'Western hostile countries,' to fight against China."

The city's young protesters used to mock Lee based on his Chinese name, Lee Ka-chiu. They called him Pikachu, after the chubby, furry rodent from the "Pokemon" series. His record, however, is not exactly cute and cuddly.

On his watch as security chief and during his short stint as chief secretary, the covert national security department, set up in the city under Beijing's national security law, has arrested nearly 200 people and smothered the pro-democracy movement. The arrest list includes politicians, activists, lawyers, journalists and students as young as 15. The allegations against them cover speech crimes like "inciting hatred" against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, or using the now-banned protest slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times."

Some are celebrating the prospect of having Lee in charge. Lau Siu-kai, vice chair of the state-backed think tank Chinese Association of Macao and Hong Kong Studies, called Lee "the best choice."

"John Lee's greatest advantage is his composure and courage in the process of quelling the riots," Lau said, while predicting that the central government would play a bigger role in governing Hong Kong in the years to come.

Lam bowing out for Lee would not be the year's first high-profile leadership change to signal Beijing's determination to further strengthen its grip.

In March, Wang Linggui was selected as deputy director of Hong Kong and Macao affairs, Beijing's party organ responsible for shaping the two cities' policies. Wang is a national security expert who had focused on Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China where human rights groups say the authorities have imprisoned over 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. The U.S. and several other countries have accused China of genocide; Beijing denies any abuses.

In January, Peng Jingtang, a general who led anti-terrorism operations in Xinjiang, took command of the People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong.

These moves "highlight some kind of fear, or sense of insecurity ... that Hong Kong may remain a base for subversion," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Police ask supporters to leave during a court hearing of Tong Ying-kit, the first person convicted under the Beijing-imposed national security law, in Hong Kong last July.   © Reuters

Police budgets arguably reflect this as well.

Government expenditure on the police force is due to rise by over 14% in 2022-23, to 26.7 billion Hong Kong dollars ($3.4 billion). The budget for purchasing police equipment and vehicles has almost quadrupled this year, to HK$508 million from HK$125 million -- all for a city that regularly ranks as one of the safest in the world. The force has already gone shopping for tactical buses, anti-riot vehicles equipped with water cannons and other equipment.

Once an uncommon sight, groups of at least four police officers now frequently patrol neighborhoods and train stations, conducting stop-and-search operations on young passersby.

"Hong Kong has become a city of high surveillance, and [has] given extensive power to law enforcement," said Eric Lai, a fellow on Hong Kong law at the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University.

Some of the surveillance relies on the public itself. A national security hotline, launched in November 2020 to encourage residents to report possible offenses, received more than 230,000 tips in its first year.

Neighbors informing on neighbors is just part of a steady erosion of freedom that has unnerved a significant portion of the population, survey data shows.

In a poll of 6,723 residents by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, over half said they were somewhat not confident or not confident at all in the future of personal freedom. One in four said they had plans to leave the city for good. The desire to get out cut across ideological grounds: About 17% of those planning to emigrate said they were not supporters of the pro-democracy movement.

Remnants of the movement remain targets. Tracking protest-related trials has become more difficult due to shutdowns of independent media outlets like Stand News and Citizen News. But one nongovernmental organization that wished to remain anonymous said more than 10,000 people had been arrested and nearly 3,000 prosecuted since the 2019 demonstrations.

Legal representatives told Nikkei Asia that police continue to hunt down and charge those involved in the protests three years later. Some lawyers, who declined to be identified, noted that the threshold for bail has been set much higher than usual and that long hearing delays mean defendants are effectively imprisoned indefinitely without trial.

"These days bail is often refused, and if it is granted the prosecutors will appeal and try to keep our clients in custody," one lawyer said.

On the other hand, the police have walked away scot-free even though an independent report concluded that excessively violent force was used against protesters. Not a single officer is known to have been held accountable.

This year is likely to see the authorities' legal tool kit for stifling dissent expand with the expected introduction of a local security law.

This would be separate from the national security law China foisted on the city in June 2020. Already, that legislation has crushed the freedom of expression and assembly previously granted by the "one country, two systems" framework, under which the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. The law targets acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with sentences of up to life imprisonment.

The authorities are also making use of a 1938 sedition law. "The colonial-era sedition law has recently been applied more frequently to cases of alleged national security threats after standing idle for decades," the consultancy A2 Global Risk said in a note prompted by the raid on the martial arts center. The instructor was hit with a charge under this law.

In early March, a DJ named Tam Tak-chi was given the first guilty verdict under the sedition law since 1997.

"Sedition is set to be added to a number of new national security crimes later this year, implying a probable increase to the maximum prison penalty of the current two years," A2 said.

A statue of martial arts legend Bruce Lee is silhouetted in front of Hong Kong's skyline.   © Reuters

The local security law, if it comes to fruition, is expected to cover treason, espionage and theft of state secrets.

In January, Security Minister Chris Tang accused foreign countries of trying to instigate a "color revolution" in Hong Kong. And during China's annual legislative meetings in March, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the National People's Congress, pledged to maintain support for Hong Kong to safeguard national security, including a "plan for legal weapons for struggles against foreign forces."

In the meantime, "terrorism" and "radicalization" have become buzzwords. A citywide community newsletter aimed at "enhancing public counterterrorism awareness" was launched by the police force on March 28. Pamphlets are stuffed into postboxes, urging people to report suspicious people or activity. Anti-terrorism advertisements are inescapable, replayed on loop on television and plastered on the walls of train stations.

Officials were looking into whether the martial arts center's students had been radicalized. When a 50-year-old man stabbed a police officer last July, before turning the knife on himself, it was described as a "lone wolf-style act of domestic terrorism." University students were later charged with advocating terrorism after they passed a student union motion in support of the attacker.

The first person convicted under the national security law, former restaurant worker Tong Ying-kit, was found guilty of terrorism for driving a motorbike into police officers. Three were injured.

In the past two years, total terrorism arrests have gone from zero to 19.

Amid the surge, some analysts are cautioning against the broad use of the terrorism label, arguing the threat is overblown. "There isn't a serious risk of terrorism in Hong Kong and no real danger," said one security expert who asked not to be named.

Georgetown University's Lai said it was "not surprising that the [Hong Kong] government is trying to exercise greater control over society and to censor all the potential resistance forces or dissenting voices in the name of counterterrorism."

Experts say the developments in Hong Kong highlight Beijing's desire for absolute state control. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Hong Kong was undergoing a process of "mainlandization" that cannot be challenged or reversed. Under Lee or another Beijing-approved chief executive at the helm, that process looks almost certain to continue.

"The new initiatives do not signal a harsher line as a new development," Tsang said. "Instead, they confirm the persistence of the hard line already put in place."

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