HONG KONG — John Lee “will make Hong Kongers and international investors feel relaxed, at ease and full of confidence,” a pro-Beijing newspaper declared. He will help the city “start anew to achieve greater glories,” the state-run China Daily wrote, in one of a series of articles praising him.
His rise to the top leadership position is “a concentrated embodiment of public opinion,” said China’s official arm in Hong Kong, though only 1,424 members of a government-vetted committee voted for him on Sunday, in an uncontested race controlled by Beijing.
Having officially become the next chief executive, Mr. Lee is now Beijing’s man, a security-minded official who can be relied on to follow orders and keep Hong Kong in line.
His political agenda is the next chapter in China’s vision for the former British colony, set in motion by the sweeping national security law imposed two years ago, which quashed dissent in a city once known for its vibrant civil society and freewheeling press.
But he will also face a city embattled by the coronavirus and some of the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions. The economy is shrinking, unemployment is rising and growing numbers of people are leaving the city, imperiling Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center.
Mr. Lee waved and bowed to applauding voters on Sunday after being declared the winner. “Having restored order from chaos, it is high time that Hong Kong starts a new chapter of development, a chapter that will be geared toward greater prosperity for all,” he said.
Since Hong Kong was reclaimed by China in 1997, Beijing has always let it be known who it wants in the top job, though it did so more subtly in the past.
Jiang Zemin, China’s then-leader, gave his tacit support to Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive, by singling him out for a long handshake at a 1996 meeting in Beijing. In 2012, the Central Liaison Office, which officially represents the Chinese government in Hong Kong, quietly told electors to pick Leung Chun-ying, the eventual winner.
When Mr. Lee announced his intention to run, he noted that he first needed Beijing’s permission to step down as chief secretary, the city’s No. 2 job. It was a simple matter of procedure, but also a public declaration of who was calling the shots.
Mr. Lee’s ascension was all but assured a month ago when his predecessor, Carrie Lam, said she would not seek a second term and Beijing approved his candidacy. Nobody else garnered enough nominations to make the ballot.
The process has always been tightly controlled, but China removed any veneer of competition or opposition this time. Between new electoral rules and the national security law, the pro-democracy camp was effectively neutered.
As chief secretary, Mr. Lee led a panel that vetted the election committee members for loyalty last year. On Sunday, 1,416 members of them voted for Mr. Lee, with just eight opposed. He will be sworn in on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China.
“Beijing has completely stacked the election committee with its loyalists and further twisted the process into a meaningless competition,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “Even in Iran, there is more of a contest for the head of government.”
Mr. Lee’s pedigree reinforces Beijing’s intentions in Hong Kong. After joining the police as a probationary inspector at 19, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the security secretary in 2017.
Mr. Lee will be the first former police officer to assume Hong Kong’s top job in more than a century, and security remains a priority for him.
He plans to push through a package of new laws on treason, secession, sedition and subversion, known collectively as Article 23. The laws are required by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but its leaders have never managed to pass them. The government tried in 2003, only to retreat after hundreds of thousands of people protested.
This time, Mr. Lee won’t face similar opposition.
News outlets, unions, political parties and human rights groups have closed under government pressure and national security investigations. Dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists are in custody awaiting trial on national security charges.
“In order to deal with future national security risks, it is urgent to complete the legislation of Article 23, and the legislation must be a ‘tiger with teeth,’” the state-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper said last month.
Mr. Lee has been a staunch advocate of security legislation. He told the United Nations Human Rights Council in March that the 2020 security law had “restored peace and stability” by ending the “violence, destruction and chaos” of the protests.
He also wants to root out critics in Hong Kong’s civil service, which has been under attack from pro-Beijing politicians since some government employees joined the 2019 demonstrations. Beijing loyalists have also accused the bureaucracy of resisting efforts to carry out mainland-style coronavirus controls, including lockdowns and mandatory testing.
As chief secretary, Mr. Lee expanded a requirement for public office holders to take fealty pledges similar to those required for bureaucrats on the mainland. And he headed a committee to vet candidates for elected office, to ensure that they were sufficiently loyal (the same panel that vetted his future voters).
“We need to make sure the civil service will faithfully implement the policies of the government,” said Lau Siu-kai, an adviser to Beijing on Hong Kong policy.
Mr. Lee has also embraced the idea, popular among mainland Chinese officials, that a lack of housing and economic opportunities helped ignite the protests of 2019.
Last month, he toured a crowded Hong Kong housing block. Pledging to create more public housing, he described the bleak conditions there, mentioning a mother and two children who lived in a 150-square-foot apartment “with cockroaches that sometimes climb in through the water pipes.”
“Their greatest wish is to be allocated public housing as soon as possible to improve their living environment,” he said. The waiting time for public housing is the longest it has been in two decades.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the challenges Mr. Lee will soon face in one of the world’s most expensive and unequal cities.
Life came to a standstill this year as the Omicron variant infected more than a million residents and engulfed hospitals. Officials turned to the “zero Covid” strategy, shutting down bars, gyms and schools and reducing restaurant hours. The city’s working class has been hit hard by such measures, which have left the service industry reeling.
The coronavirus policies, which have largely isolated Hong Kong, have also prompted a reassessment of the city by international companies. Business leaders say they are struggling to hire and keep executives in Hong Kong. A growing number of companies have relocated, while others have temporarily moved top executives to cities like Singapore.
“This was the city of opportunity; everyone wanted to come here,” said Eugenia Bae, a headhunter for international banks and financial firms. “Now it is no longer a popular city anymore.”
Mr. Lee, who is largely unknown to the business community, has promised to restore Hong Kong’s status as a thriving global hub. He has also said he would strengthen its financial ties with mainland China.
“We have the hope and the expectation that the next leadership will lead Hong Kong out of the pandemic and back on track,” said Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
Felix Chung, a former lawmaker, met with Mr. Lee in early 2019, when the future chief executive was drafting a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China and other places — legislation that would soon trigger the citywide protests.
At the time, many business leaders took issue with the bill’s scope, worrying that it would make them vulnerable to charges on the mainland, where a corruption crackdown was underway. When China first opened up its economy, Mr. Chung said, many businesses operated in legally dubious ways.
After several meetings, Mr. Lee agreed to remove 9 of the 46 categories of crimes originally cited in the bill, largely easing the business leaders’ concerns. Whether Mr. Lee will be so willing to negotiate as chief executive is unclear, Mr. Chung said.
“We cannot use our past experience to analyze the present situation because a lot of decisions are being made by Beijing,” he said.
Tiffany May contributed reporting.