John Lee, a radical security chief who oversaw a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, was elected the city’s next leader in a vote cast by a largely pro-Beijing committee.
Mr. Lee was the sole candidate and won more than 99% of the vote, during which nearly all of the 1,500 committee members were carefully vetted by China’s central government in Beijing.
He will replace current leader Carrie Lam on July 1.
Ms. Lam’s five-year term has been marked by huge pro-democracy protests calling for her resignation, a security crackdown that quashed virtually all dissent, and the recent wave of Covid-19 that had overwhelmed the healthcare system – events that undermined Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business center with Western-style freedoms.
“I look forward to us all starting a new chapter together, building a caring, open and vibrant Hong Kong, and a Hong Kong full of opportunity and harmony,” Lee said in his victory speech.
Ms. Lam praised Mr. Lee in a statement and said she would submit the election results to Beijing.
The election followed major changes to Hong Kong’s election laws last year to ensure only “patriots” loyal to Beijing can hold office.
The legislature was also reorganized to virtually eliminate opposition voices.
The elaborate arrangements surrounding the predetermined outcome speak to Beijing’s desire for a veneer of democracy.
Committee members voted by secret ballot and Mr. Lee’s 1,416 votes were the highest support ever for the city’s leadership position.
Without opposition, Mr. Lee would likely have an easier time governing Hong Kong than Ms. Lam, said Ivan Choy, senior lecturer in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“One of the main reasons for easier governance is that the electoral system has changed,” he said.
“In the legislature and the electoral committee, there is almost no political opposition and the political spectrum is concentrated towards the pro-establishment camp.”
Mr Choy added: ‘Without Democrats it will be easier for the Chief Executive to govern because there are fewer checks and balances.’
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Mr Lee’s election “violates democratic principles and political pluralism in Hong Kong”.
“The selection process is one more step in dismantling the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” Borrell tweeted.
The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong congratulated Mr Lee and said the election was conducted in a “fair, just and orderly manner in accordance with laws and regulations”.
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the Mainland China State Council said in its congratulatory note that the ‘successful election’ proved the city’s new electoral system to be ‘good’ and compliant. to the “one country, two systems” framework that Hong Kong is governed by.
Critics say the freedom of speech and assembly that Hong Kong pledged to retain for 50 years when it was ceded by Britain to China in 1997 has disappeared as Beijing exerts greater control over the territory.
On Sunday morning, three members of the League of Social Democrats, a grassroots activist group, protested the vote by attempting to march to the election site while displaying a banner demanding universal suffrage that would allow Hong Kongers to vote for the legislature and the executive head.
“Human rights over power, the people is greater than the country,” read the banner. “One person, one voice for the CEO. Implement universal double suffrage immediately.
A protester was distributing leaflets before police arrived and cordoned off the protesters and the banner.
Police also searched protesters’ personal belongings and recorded their personal information, although no arrests were made immediately.
The pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong has long called for universal suffrage, which they say the city is promised in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
It was also a key demand during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests and the 2019 anti-government protests.
Mr. Lee, as the future leader of Hong Kong, raised fears that Beijing could further tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
He has spent most of his career in public service in the police and security bureau, and is a strong supporter of a national security law imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 aimed at stamping out dissent.
His rise was born out of massive anti-government protests in 2019 that turned into violent clashes.
As security secretary, he oversaw the police campaign to confront protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, then arrested many to arrest them later.
More than 150 people were arrested under the Security Law, which prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces to interfere in city affairs.
Almost all prominent pro-democracy activists have been imprisoned, others have fled abroad or been bullied into silence.
Thousands of residents have left the city of 7.4 million amid 2019 protests and the severe pandemic restrictions that followed, including many working professionals and expats.
While campaigning in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election, Mr Lee pledged to enact long-standing local legislation to protect against security threats and pledged to increase housing supply in the most expensive real estate market in the world.
He also said that it will improve the city’s competitiveness and lay a solid foundation for its development.