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‘The Guy With the Gun Is Now Running Hong Kong’

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John Lee’s elevation reflects the distrust and paranoia that have flourished in Beijing and among Hong Kong’s political elites.
Counting the votes cast in Hong Kong’s chief-executive election this month took just 23 minutes. There was no hyperefficient voting technology or army of poll workers. The speed was due instead to the paltry number of ballots: Only 1,461 needed to be tabulated, and they listed just one candidate. So with a vote share that would make a dictator grin (99.2 percent), John Lee became the fifth person selected to lead the city in the postcolonial era. Lee takes office this summer, when Hong Kong will mark 25 years under Chinese rule, the halfway point of the “one country, two systems” experiment that was meant to grant the city a high degree of autonomy, a moment rumored to be marked with a visit from President Xi Jinping. Lee’s elevation is reflective of the distrust and paranoia that has flourished in Beijing and among Hong Kong’s political elites since the 2019 prodemocracy protests, which he helped both trigger and eventually put down. The foreign connections that have been one of Hong Kong’s defining features are seen now in a more suspect light—possible weaknesses to be exploited in an unstable world where China is under constant threat and where the city will need to be less reliant on the West, particularly the United States. Even as officials speak of exiting strict pandemic protocols that have isolated Hong Kong for years and of a need to reinvigorate it as an international business center, the overriding priority will be that of law and order. This will be maintained through a sprawling, powerful security apparatus, backed up by a judicial system that embraced Beijing’s draconian new national-security law while at the same time discovering a penchant for oppressive colonial rules once wielded by the British. On all counts, Lee—a former police officer and security chief who is already subject to American sanctions—fits the bill. Though none of Lee’s predecessors were elected through genuine democracy, they all made attempts to balance the desires of Beijing’s leaders and Hong Kong’s people, desires that were often at odds. In the city’s new iteration, this will be less necessary. Lee will likely work to portray the chief-executive role as strong and nonpolitical, supported, more so than challenged, by an obedient legislature—all with the knowledge that the chances of any popular pushback are exceedingly scant. Lee’s vision of Hong Kong is a dark one, and Beijing has cast him as the only patriot strong enough to enact it. The Chinese authorities want “someone who can stand firm against any pressure coming from the outside, protect the interest of the country, and keep away foreign interference,” Jasper Tsang, a former president of the legislative council and the founder of the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party who supported Lee’s election, told me. “This is what is needed now.”
Lee, 64, attended a Jesuit all-boys school and, upon graduating, joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1977, when Britain still ruled the city. By the late 1990s, he was involved in some of the city’s biggest cases, including the pursuit of Cheung Tze-keung, a gangster known as “Big Spender” for his lavish gambling habits. Cheung had undertaken a string of brazen airport thefts and abductions, kidnapping two tycoons in 1996 and 1997, respectively, and extracting tens of millions of dollars in ransom for their releases. Lee led a stakeout that uncovered a massive cache of explosives belonging to Cheung, who was caught soon after on the mainland. He was swiftly tried, found guilty, and executed by firing squad. Lee’s background and education are very much unlike those of Hong Kong’s previous chief executives—and, from Beijing’s point of view, that is a strength. Whereas prior leaders studied at places such as Harvard and Cambridge, or were Fulbright scholars, Lee obtained a master’s degree through an Australian distance-learning program. Previous chief executives were businesspeople or career bureaucrats. By contrast, Lee’s blue-collar background in the police and his lack of connections to political and business elites have been touted by pro-Beijing pundits, who say that he will be unencumbered by the vested interests who hold substantial power in the close-knit world of Hong Kong politics. Lee rose through the force’s ranks over 35-odd years, but in 2011 was passed over for police commissioner in favor of a more operationally focused and charismatic candidate, a former colleague said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities. Another former officer described Lee as tough and competent, but with a temper that sometimes flared because of his chronic back pain.

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