John Lee, who spent decades in the police department before joining the political administration and was a key figure in Hong Kong’s democratic crackdown, will be named the city’s top leader after next month’s rubber-stamp elections.

After securing enough nominations, Li formally submitted his bid on Wednesday and is the only candidate running for chief executive, the highest-ranking local leadership position on Chinese soil.

Lee Jae-yong served as Hong Kong’s second Chief Secretary for Administration until April 6, but then resigned, making him eligible to be a candidate to replace the current Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, who said last week that she would not resign. Election semester.

Unlike Lin, a career civil servant who oversees issues such as housing, health and trade, Li has a background in law and order.

After announcing his candidacy, he told reporters that his term would provide “a new symphony” for him as a “conductor.”

According to his government biography, Mr Lee joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1977 and was promoted to Assistant Commissioner of Police in 2003. From 2012 to 2021, he served as Deputy Secretary for Security and Secretary for Security before being appointed to his latest position in 2021.

As a former police officer, he also stands outside Hong Kong’s political system, a key selling point for Beijing, said a former lawmaker who did not want to be named.

Former chief executives such as Tung Chee-hwa and Leung Chun-ying have deep ties to the business world, while Donald Tsang and Carrie Lam rose through the colonial civil service before taking on more senior roles after Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997.

Regulation of 2019 protests prompts calls for investigation into alleged police brutality [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

By contrast, Lee Kuan Yew had no “local power base,” the former legislator said, but at the same time had enough brains to gain Beijing’s support. Under the terms of Hong Kong’s new electoral law introduced last year, only politically vetted “patriots” can run for office.

According to experts, Li’s professional experience and ability to withstand criticism also make him an ideal candidate for Beijing. During the mass protests in 2019, he gained international attention as the face of the local government at regular press conferences.

The 2019 protests were sparked by a deeply unpopular plan to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws and allow suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial, but they quickly snowballed across the city protests for more democratic rights.

Suzanne Pepper, a long-time Hong Kong-based political scientist, said that during the turbulent 2019, despite mounting domestic and international pressure, Lee’s press conference showed “a firm, firm commitment to the proposed legislation.” A deadpan defense.”

She said Lee’s leadership style should be largely the same, characterized by “no-nonsense, methodical, and seemingly no consideration or great respect for dissenting opinions raised, regardless of the questions and uncertainties it presents to the public.”

Hong Kong policing is changing slowly

As Hong Kong’s top police and security chief, Li also ushered in a new era for the police force in 2014, said Anna Guo, a strategy and operations assistant at the US Hong Kong Democracy Council.

Two key incidents in the way the police handled protesters that year, first at demonstrations against development in the New Territories, and then at the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests.

In both cases, Guo said, police began charging protesters — rather than arresting and releasing — and using more force than before.

As head of the security bureau, Li also visited Xinjiang province in late 2018, where China is accused of holding more than 1 million people in internment camps for a brutal campaign against the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority, which it said was to stop ” extremism”.

“After coming back, he actually claimed that he had learned a lot from Xinjiang’s counterterrorism mechanisms and experience,” Guo said. “He also made it clear that this is something Hong Kong can learn.”

Still, until 2019, Hong Kong’s police force was the most respected branch of the local government, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

Under Lee, however, it “turned into the most despised and hated institution in a few weeks of 2019” due to its aggressive tactics against protesters.

These tactics included dealing with protesters and using rubber bullets and tear gas to control crowds.

Tsang said Lee’s police record was more worrisome than his lack of experience as an administrator.

“Beijing’s selection of people with such a record shows that Beijing’s priority is to ensure there is no dissent. [Hong Kong]above and beyond,” he told Al Jazeera via email.

safety management

After the 2019 protests ended, Lee assumed a new role in mid-2020, overseeing Hong Kong’s national security legislation as a member of the National Security Committee.

Hong Kong police have arrested 183 people since the national security law was implemented in June 2020, according to a database compiled by Chinese archives. Of those, 113 were charged with crimes such as subversion or “incitement” of speech.

Many in Hong Kong’s small but dynamic political opposition have either been jailed or forced to emigrate for their roles in the 2019 protests. In total, Hong Kong police have arrested 47 senior city activists and leaders on charges including subversion, most of whom have spent a year in pretrial detention.

Many commentators also argued that the legislation prematurely ended “one country, two systems”, with Beijing promising to govern Hong Kong after the handover and ensure it enjoys rights and freedoms unknown to the mainland until at least 2047.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (second from right) poses for a photo with Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee on the day he was promoted to No. 2 in June 2021
John Lee (second from left), who is next to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was appointed Chief Secretary for Administration on June 25 last year after devoting his life to safety [File: Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

Hong Kong’s national security regime, coupled with its harsh response to COVID-19, has forced thousands to leave, including to the UK, where Hong Kong residents born before the handover in 1997 enjoy special status.

In addition to the severe restrictions on daily life due to the spread of the Omicron variant, many are concerned about the future of the next generation as Hong Kong schools teach even elementary school students lessons on “patriotism” and national security.

Hong Kong’s population will shrink by 23,600 in 2021, while flight data shows that more Hong Kongers continue to head for exports in 2022, including foreign professionals leaving.

Hong Kong’s future

The security crackdown has clouded the economic outlook for Hong Kong, with the U.S. assessing the region is no longer independent of China and therefore ineligible for special trade privileges.

The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on Hong Kong officials, including Lam and Lee, for undermining that autonomy.

The incoming CEO also has to deal with the impact of COVID-19, a deeply unequal society and one of the most expensive housing in the world.

But Lee suggested he would prioritize safety during his tenure.

He has previously said that Hong Kong should pass a local version of Beijing-implemented national security legislation, “Article 23” of the Hong Kong Basic Law, its mini-constitution.

Article 23 stipulates that this city shall formulate its own legislation to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion of the Central People’s Government,” another way of saying it from Beijing.

Hong Kong’s leadership tried to introduce the law in 2003, but abandoned the plan after an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets, local media reported.

Lee also told local media last year that he wanted to crack down on “fake news,” suggesting Hong Kong could see legislation similar to the fake news law passed in Singapore in 2019. curb free speech.

Before 2020, Hong Kong was widely regarded as the free speech capital of Asia, with a vibrant civil society and a buzzing media. Under the new national security law, some local media outlets were either shut down by police or closed for fear of prosecution.

Hong Kong citizens line up to buy the final edition of Apple Daily
Hong Kongers snapped up the final edition of Apple Daily published on June 24, 2021 [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

The independent publication has come under fire from executives and editors at Apple Daily, a local pro-democracy tabloid, and its parent company, Next Digital, has been accused of crimes such as collusion with foreign powers or endangering national security. The paper was shut down last year, but before people lined the block for its final edition.

Before Lee Kuan Yew’s announcement, the Hong Kong media had discussed several potential candidates from the business community and the executive branch of government, but now Lee Kuan Yew will have no opposition.

The position will be voted on on May 8 by a special committee of 1,462 voters, in a vote costing HK$278 million ($35.4 million), the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

The former legislator, who spoke to Al Jazeera, said more security-related legislation could be introduced under Lee Kuan Yew – this time targeting so-called “foreign influence” in Hong Kong.

The city, once proud of its British-style legal system and large foreign community as an “Asian world city” and a major international financial centre, will change, they say.

“They’re going to focus on foreign espionage, they’re going to focus on foreign organizations in Hong Kong, they’re going to focus on fake news, and all kinds of national security legislation, like super sedition,” the lawmaker said, adding, “the big policy picture. Yes, Beijing is sending a strong signal that it will not back down. It is a very clear message to the international community.”