Hong Kong’s new leadership-in-waiting will continue to focus on a “national security” crackdown when it takes office on July 1 under incoming leader John Lee, whose cabinet was confirmed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing over the weekend.
Lee, a former high-ranking policeman and government security chief, has said the ongoing crackdown on dissent under the national security law will be his “fundamental mission” when he takes over from chief executive Carrie Lam.
Lee, who was the only candidate in an “election” for the city’s top job held earlier this year, has pledged to keep up the hard-line approach to dissent, which has led to the closure of civic groups including labor unions, pro-democracy newspapers and an organization that once organized annual candlelight vigils for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
More than 10,000 people have been arrested and 2,800 prosecuted under the national security law, which was imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.
Among them are 47 former pro-democracy politicians and activists awaiting trial for “subversion” after they took part in a democratic primary election in July 2020. The government later postponed the Legislative Council elections the primary was preparing for and changed the electoral system so that pro-democracy candidates couldn’t run.
His incoming chief secretary Eric Chan, security chief Chris Tang and secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Erick Tsang all have backgrounds in either the security or disciplinary services, and have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for their role in the crackdown.
Lee’s cabinet received the nod from Beijing amid growing indications that CCP leader Xi Jinping may be planning to visit Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover to Chinese rule.
The South China Morning Post newspaper and the HK01.com news website said Lee and his team will immediately go into a “closed-loop” quarantine bubble, to ensure they are free from COVID-19 ahead of the ceremony, while the Ming Pao reported that some schools have been told to bring students for “pick-up and drop-off” ceremonies at the airport on June 30 and July 1.
Funds from mainland China have been pouring into the Hong Kong stock market in recent weeks, boosting the Hang Seng Index ahead of a Xi visit that many think is likely based on his visit on the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Disapproval of Lam
Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said this visit will be far more important to Xi than his 2017 trip.
“This time will be very different from 2017, because it’s the 25th anniversary, which is half of the 50 years [China promised to maintain Hong Kong’s way of life],” Lau told RFA.
“China will seize this opportunity to vigorously publicize the feasibility and success of its one country, two systems concept … even if they haven’t reached zero-COVID,” he said.
“Also, the international community is also concerned about what will happen to Hong Kong in the future,” Lau said. “If Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong, it will show that Hong Kong is still a place you can make a profit … as the Chinese economy is in great difficulty, and Hong Kong is still the main bridge for foreign capital to enter China.”
“Focusing on the economy and less on politics and security is good for Hong Kong in terms of atmosphere,” he said, adding that the trip should boost Xi’s image ahead of the 20th CCP National Congress later this year, when Xi is expected to seek an unprecedented third term in office.
Lam is leaving her post under a cloud of disapproval after the 2019 protest movement that sparked Beijing’s crackdown on the city.
The movement started with a mass protest that blockaded Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) on June 12, preventing lawmakers from getting into the chamber to pass the hugely unpopular legal amendment that would have allowed the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China.
However, Lam refused to withdraw the amendment until several months later, by which time the protest movement’s demands had broadened to include fully democratic elections and official accountability for the handling of the protests, as well as an amnesty for political prisoners.
The protest was the first of many to be quelled that year by widespread police violence that saw the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets on an unarmed and peaceful crowd, many of whom were unable to flee, as well as mass arrests and physical beatings of mostly young people.
“For us, the damage she did to Hong Kong during her time in office is beyond words,” former pro-democracy politician Clara Cheung told RFA in a recent interview. “Shame on her for not apologizing, as if it had nothing to do with her, for not admitting that damage, nor her responsibility for it.”
Cheung and fellow pro-democracy activists in exile in the U.K. have written an open letter refusing to recognize John Lee as chief executive.
“John Lee was one of the main forces behind the [crackdown] on the anti-extradition movement of 2019,” Cheung said. “He coordinated the crackdown, which used very cruel methods to suppress protesting citizens.”
“On the one hand we feel angry, but we are also worried that things will get worse and worse in Hong Kong under his hardline leadership,” she said.
The letter said that, under the new electoral rules that followed the democratic primary, only the 1,461 members of the Election Committee have any meaningful vote, out of the city’s population of 7.4 million people, and described Lee as a “puppet chief executive” appointed by Beijing with scant popular support.
U.K.-based activist Finn Lau said it was significant that Lee would assume office on the 25th anniversary.
“This year happens to mark the 25th anniversary of the handover, which is extremely ironic,” Lau said, in an apparent reference to China’s promise to keep Hong Kong’s way of life unchanged for 50 years after the handover.
“It is a great irony John Lee, a former security chief, will take office as chief executive of Hong Kong on that anniversary,” he said.
Cheung said promises of step-by-step progress towards fully democratic elections were enshrined in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution since 1997.
“Instead of gradual progress, things are going backwards,” she said. “I think that’s what disappoints Hong Kong people the most.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.