A former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic movement was named the business hub’s new leader on Sunday by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.
John Lee, 64, was the only candidate in the Beijing-backed race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam.
Lee’s elevation, which is subject to US sanctions, places a security official in first place after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and debilitating pandemic controls.
Despite the city’s mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, a source of years of public frustration and protests since the 1997 move to China.
Its leader is instead chosen by an “electoral committee” currently made up of 1,461 people, about 0.02 percent of the city’s population.
After a brief secret ballot on Sunday, 99 percent of those who voted (1,416 members) voted for Lee while only eight voted against, according to officials.
Beijing hailed the near-unanimous result, saying it showed that “Hong Kong society has a high level of recognition and approval” for Lee.
“This is a real demonstration of the democratic spirit,” said the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Bureau.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell retorted that the selection process was a “violation of democratic principles and political pluralism”.
Borrell described Sunday’s result as “yet another step in dismantling the” one country, two systems “principle in which Beijing promised Hong Kong to maintain fundamental freedoms and autonomy.
Under President Xi Jinping, China is reshaping Hong Kong into its authoritarian image after the huge and sometimes violent democratic protests three years ago.
Beijing has implemented a broad national security law to crack down on dissent and has launched a new “patriots only” political control system to ensure that anyone running for office is considered appropriately loyal.
The protests have largely been banned, with authorities imposing a coronavirus ban on public gatherings of more than four people and the security law.
The League of Social Democrats – one of the only pro-democracy groups left – held a three-person protest before the polls opened on Sunday, chanting “Power to the people, now universal suffrage.”
“We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to remain completely silent,” protester Vanessa Chan said as dozens of police officers watched.
A troubled city
Although the democratic movement has been crushed, much of the population still resents the Beijing government and angers the city’s deep-seated inequality.
Hong Kong also faces economic difficulties thanks to two years of rigorous pandemic containment measures that have damaged the reputation of its business hub and left residents cut off from the reopening of rivals.
Lee was asked by reporters on Sunday if he lacked a genuine warrant.
“I understand there will be time to convince people,” he replied.
“But I can do it with action.”
He said he planned to build a Hong Kong that is “full of hope, opportunity and harmony” now that the authorities have “brought order out of chaos.”
So far, his campaign has been light on concrete political details, particularly how he intends to reopen Hong Kong to both international and continental travel at a time when China is doubling down on its rigorous zero-Covid strategy.
Hong Kong CEOs find themselves trapped between the democratic aspirations of the city’s residents and the authoritarian demands of Beijing’s leaders.
Outgoing leader Carrie Lam is well on her way to leaving office with record approval ratings.
According to a March poll by the Public Opinion Research Institute, about 24% of the public trust Lee, compared with 12% in Lam.
Waiting in line outside a restaurant on Sunday, 25-year-old resident Alex Tam said he and his friends were paying little attention to the proceedings.
“It’s just an empty gesture,” he told AFP.
“If he didn’t listen to the protesters, I don’t see how he would listen to young people now, especially those who criticize the government.”
Retired businessman Yeung Wing-shun was more positive, saying he hoped Lee would lead Hong Kong with a “steady hand,” adding that he believed the new leader could unite several sectors.
Lee will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s delivery to China from Great Britain and midway through “One Country, Two Systems”.
Beijing and Lee say the formula is still intact.
Critics, including many Western powers, claim it was destroyed.