A former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement was anointed 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 the outgoing leader, Carrie Lam.
The elevation of Lee, subject of US sanctions, places a security official in the top job for the first time 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, the source of years of public frustration and protests since the 1997 handover to China.
Its leader is instead chosen by an “election committee” currently comprised of 1,461 people – roughly 0.02% of the city’s population.
After a brief secret ballot on Sunday, 99% (1,416 members) voted for Lee while eight voted against, according to officials.
Beijing hailed the near-unanimous result, saying it showed “Hong Kong society has a high level of recognition and approval” for Lee.
“This is a real demonstration of democratic spirit,” the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said in a statement.
Under president Xi Jinping, China is remoulding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
Beijing deployed a sweeping national security law to stamp out dissent and rolled out a new “patriots only” political vetting system to guarantee anyone standing for office is considered suitably loyal.
Protests have been largely outlawed, with authorities using an anti-coronavirus ban on public gatherings of more than four people as well as the security law.
The League of Social Democrats – one of the only remaining pro-democracy groups – held a three-person protest before polls opened Sunday, chanting “Power to the people, universal suffrage now”.
“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like – a shrinking of our civil liberties,” said protester Vanessa Chan as dozens of police officers looked on.
“We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to be completely silent.”
While the democracy movement has been crushed, much of the population still resents Beijing’s rule and chafes at the city’s entrenched inequality.
Hong Kong also faces economic difficulties thanks to two years of strict pandemic curbs that have damaged its reputation as a business hub and left residents cut off as rivals reopen.
Under the slogan “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together”, Lee has vowed to bring in “result-oriented” governance, forge unity and reboot the city’s economy.
A 44-page manifesto he released last week stuck to broad goals and few offered concrete policies or targets.
Lee has said he will disclose more details when he makes his first policy address.
Hong Kong’s chief executives find themselves caught between the democratic aspirations of the city’s residents and the authoritarian demands of Beijing’s leaders.
Lam is on track to leave office with record-low approval ratings.
According to a survey in March by the Public Opinion Research Institute, about 24% of the public has confidence in Lee, compared with 12% for Lam.
Waiting in a line outside a restaurant on Sunday, 25-year-old resident Alex Tam said he and his friends were paying little attention to proceedings.
“It’s just an empty gesture,” he said. “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 guide Hong Kong with a “firm hand”, adding that he believed the new leader could bring different sectors together.
Lee will take office on 1 July, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain.
China agreed that Hong Kong could maintain certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after retaking control from Britain under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Beijing and Lee say that formula is still intact. Critics, including many western powers, say it has been shredded.
Lee is one of 11 senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials sanctioned by the US because of the political crackdown.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism