John Lee: Who is Hong Kong's new hardline pro-Beijing leader?

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (L) and police chief Stephen Lo (R) look on as Hong Kong's security chief, John Lee (C), addresses the media at a press conference in Hong Kong on July 22, 2019.Image source, Getty Images
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Mr Lee (centre) became one of the faces of the local government in 2019 when police clashed with protesters in the streets

Former security chief John Lee Ka-chiu has been sworn in as Hong Kong's next leader, in what is widely seen as a move by the Chinese government to tighten its grip on the city.

He is replacing Carrie Lam following the city's chief executive election in May - in which he was the sole candidate.

Known for his pro-Beijing hardline views, he is not exactly well-liked, having garnered only 34.8 points out of 100 in a recent popularity survey.

But this matters little in Hong Kong where the public does not get to directly elect their leader - instead, Mr Lee was essentially handpicked by Beijing.

The 64-year-old was chosen by an election committee staffed mostly by Beijing loyalists, who voted in what was basically a rubber-stamp election.

His 21-member cabinet too largely comprises pro-Beijing leaders, including three who, like him, were sanctioned by the US for suppressing freedom in Hong Kong.

Rising through the ranks

Mr Lee's background is in law enforcement - unlike his predecessors, who either had ties with the business community or experience in the civil service.

He joined the Hong Kong police force in 1977 at the age of 20. His early career focused on tackling criminal activity.

The father of two was both a Hong Kong resident and a British citizen, until he gave up his UK citizenship shortly before he was appointed Under Secretary for Security in 2012.

When he was promoted to Secretary of Security under Carrie Lam's administration, he played a pivotal role in pushing for the ill-fated extradition bill in 2019, which sparked the city's worst political and social turmoil in decades.

When massive street protests against the bill erupted, he continued to back it. He became one of the faces of the local government in press conferences.

The protests, which began peacefully, at times descended into violent clashes between the police and some demonstrators.

The police, under Mr Lee's watch as security chief, were criticised for their heavy use of water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally live ammunition in running battles with the protesters.

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But Mr Lee was highly critical of the protests and fervently defended the Hong Kong police's use of force, saying that the violent actions by some protesters amounted to "terrorism" and "extremism".

YouTube blocked his campaign account after the US sanctioned him.

But Mr Lee has defended his position fiercely, saying he was only doing his duty "to safeguard security".

In June 2021, he was appointed Chief Secretary of Administration, the city's second most powerful position. He held the post for less than a year, before resigning in April to run for the top job.

Security above all else

In June 2020, China passed the draconian national security law for Hong Kong, which made it easier to punish protesters and led to the arrest of more than 100 dissidents.

Mr Lee was then appointed a member in a newly established committee that oversees national security matters. He said the law has helped Hong Kong restore "stability from chaos", and he will continue to eliminate "the ideology of Hong Kong independence, violence and extremism".

Image source, SOPA Images
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Hong Kong's protests turned violent, with police forces using tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and sometimes live ammunition

He has hinted his time in office will prioritise security issues, including the security legislation of Article 23, above all else.

This is an item in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution, which says the city should enact its own legislation to "prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion" against Beijing.

Since an aborted attempt in 2003, no Hong Kong leader has given it another try, but now Mr Lee is calling it "a top priority" for his administration.

He has also become the chairman of a separate committee with the power to decide who are eligible "patriots" to run in any election in Hong Kong.

Mr Lee has taken a hardline position on the media, saying last year that the Hong Kong government would look into making laws to address what he described as "fake news" and a national security issue.

Beijing's 'Pikachu'

His critics have nicknamed him Pikachu, a character from the cartoon Pokémon.

It's a play on his Chinese name Ka-Chiu but also refers what some say is a pet-like loyalty to Beijing.

Image source, AhTo/阿塗
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This political cartoon depicts Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh launching John Lee as Pikachu

Political commentators believe his selection shows a "shift of priority" from Beijing, and it needs to be viewed in the context of the current state of China-US relations.

"Beijing seems convinced now the US is using Hong Kong as a base to try to subvert China," said political scientist Willy Wo-Lap Lam.

Critics also say Mr Lee's appointment is further evidence of how Hong Kong is being turned into a "police state", and warn that political crackdowns will intensify under his watch.

"Choosing him (Mr Lee) signals that the Chinese Communist Party is not confident about security in Hong Kong. It also lets us know that the central government continues to distrust the Hong Kong government and people," wrote John Burns in a recent column for Hong Kong Free Press, an independent news website.

Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, says there is a real worry that people might be "criminalised for their expression or their thoughts", adding that his association intends to raise issues about press freedom with Mr Lee's administration.

Under the national security law, independent publications such as tabloid Apple Daily and news website Stand News have been shut down, while journalists and media executives have been charged with "colluding with foreign forces" and sedition.

Image source, Getty Images
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Mr Lee (second from right), seen here with Chinese officials, ran unopposed for Hong Kong's top post with Beijing's blessing

There have also been concerns that Mr Lee lacks experience managing the economy and social welfare.

He has taken over at a time where the global financial hub is struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He will also have to address issues such a lack of housing and growing inequality.

But he appears to have secured the support of the city's elite.

A week after his nomination, Mr Lee formed an advisory team that includes many prominent figures, including Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka-shing and China's top advisory committee member Henry Tang. Even movie star Jackie Chan is on the list.

Victor Li, chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd, said in a statement that Mr Lee is "a suitable choice" for the city's next leader, "as a city can only prosper when it is stable".

Mr Lee has described Hong Kong as a symphony orchestra and said that, despite his lack of experience in running a top financial city, he will be its "conductor".

Beijing, it appears, has also come to the same conclusion.

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