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Hong Kong security law

Hong Kong's John Lee locks in backing for top job

Former security chief has enough support to succeed Carrie Lam as chief executive

John Lee announced his intention to run for Hong Kong's top job after current Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would not stand for a second term.    © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's former security chief John Lee on Wednesday threw his hat in the ring to become the city's next chief executive, after winning majority backing from a Beijing-controlled election committee that all but guarantees him the job. 

Lee officially submitted his candidacy having secured 786 Election Committee nominations -- which represents more than half of its 1,463 members -- just days before the ballot period winds up and with no other candidates officially in the race.

The former police officer, who was Hong Kong's security chief during anti-government protests in 2019, has little experience in matters outside security, but Lee's ascension is seen by analysts as an indicator of Beijing prioritizing law and order over the international financial hub's economic development.

Breaking with tradition, Lee, 64, has yet to lay out a formal platform, but earlier pointed to several "directions" for Hong Kong and added that he would pick an experienced team to help run the city of 7.4 million.

"It is not easy, I have been working hard to explain to various members what my election platform is like," Lee told reporters after handing in his application to stand for the May 8 election.

On Saturday, Lee announced his intention to run for the job after the incumbent Carrie Lam said she would not stand for a second term. Lam presided over one of Hong Kong's most tumultuous periods amid a wave of anti-government protests and its worst COVID-19 outbreak.

Lee, who has warned that Hong Kong is at risk of "terrorism" threats, played a critical role in cracking down on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement. Under his watch as security chief, the popular Apple Daily newspaper, which was sharply critical of the Chinese Communist Party, was forced to shut down after its founder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested.

In 2020, Washington sanctioned Lee and 10 other officials over their alleged roles in eroding Hong Kong's civil liberties. Hong Kong rolled out a Beijing-imposed national security law in mid-2020 that critics say has steadily curbed freedoms.

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department accused China of continuing "to dismantle Hong Kong's political freedoms and autonomy."

"[Legal changes] fundamentally changed Hong Kong's electoral system to allow Beijing effectively to block participation of political groups not approved by Beijing," the agency said in its annual human rights report.

The city's electoral system was overhauled last year by Beijing to ensure that only "patriots" -- that is, people loyal to the Chinese government -- would run for office in Hong Kong. The reform included expanding the size of the committee responsible for picking the city's leader and increasing the minimum number of nominations to 188, including 15 from the new "patriots" sector.

Lee's nomination haul was more than 4 times the minimum required to run.

In the past couple of days, Lee has held meetings with pro-Beijing associations and political parties, including the New People's Party, the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong and the Liberal Party, as well as holding an online exchange with the Election Committee.

During the meetings, members from different sectors of the city shared their views on issues including housing and opening up the border with mainland China. 

During his campaigning, Lee said he would not have time to engage with the public and instead put his focus on winning over the Election Committee.

Lee will need more than 751 votes from the Election Committee to become Hong Kong's chief executive. Members of the public have no say on who becomes the city's next leader.

Lee, who was appointed Hong Kong's second-in-command last year, said on Tuesday that enacting a city-specific security law known as Article 23, separate from the Beijing-imposed legislation, would ensure Hong Kong is "well positioned to handle future challenges."

Article 23 is expected to cover treason, espionage and other crimes not included in the earlier national security law which paved the way for authorities to arrest scores of opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists and students critical of the government.

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