John Lee, a hardline security chief who oversaw a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, has been elected as the city’s next leader in a vote cast by a largely pro-Beijing committee.
Mr Lee was the only candidate and won with more than 99% of the vote in which nearly all 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-term was marked by huge pro-democracy protests calling for her resignation, a security crackdown that has quashed virtually all dissent and the recent Covid-19 wave that had overwhelmed the health system – events that have undermined Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business hub with western-style freedoms.
“I look forward to all of us starting a new chapter together, building a Hong Kong that is caring, open and vibrant, and a Hong Kong that is full of opportunities and harmony,” Mr Lee said in his victory speech.
Ms Lam congratulated Mr Lee in a statement and said she would submit the election results to Beijing.
The election followed major changes to Hong Kong’s electoral laws last year to ensure that only “patriots” loyal to Beijing can hold office.
The legislature was also reorganised to all but eliminate opposition voices.
The elaborate arrangements surrounding the predetermined outcome speak to Beijing’s desire for a veneer of democracy.
The committee members voted in a secret ballot, and Mr Lee’s 1,416 votes were the highest support ever for the city’s top leadership position.
Without opposition, Mr Lee was likely to have an easier time governing Hong Kong compared with Ms Lam, said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Government and Public Administration.
“A major reason for easier governance is that the electoral system has changed,” he said.
“In the legislature and the election committee, there is almost no political opposition and the political spectrum is concentrated towards the pro-establishment camp.”
Mr Choy added: “With no democrats, it will be easier for the chief executive to govern as there are fewer checks and balances.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Mr Lee’s election “violates democratic principles and political pluralism in Hong Kong”.
“Selection process is yet another step in the dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” Mr 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”.
Mainland China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council said in its congratulatory note that the “successful election” proved that the city’s new electoral system is “good” and in line with the “one country, two systems” framework that Hong Kong is governed by.
Critics say freedom of speech and assembly that Hong Kong was promised to keep for 50 years when it was handed over by Britain to China in 1997 has vanished as Beijing exerts greater control over the territory.
On Sunday morning, three members of the League of Social Democrats, a local activist group, protested over the vote by attempting to march towards the election venue while displaying a banner demanding universal suffrage that would allow Hong Kongers to vote for the legislature and the chief executive.
“Human rights over power, the people are greater than the country,” the banner read. “One person, one vote for the chief executive. Immediately implement dual universal suffrage.”
One protester was handing out flyers before police arrived and cordoned off the protesters and the banner.
Police also searched protesters’ belongings and took down their personal details, though no arrests were immediately made.
The pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong has long demanded universal suffrage, which they say is promised to the city in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
It was also a key demand in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests and 2019 anti-government demonstrations.
Mr Lee as Hong Kong’s future leader has sparked concern that Beijing could further tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
He spent most of his civil service career in the police and security bureau, and is an outspoken and staunch supporter of a national security law imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 aimed at stamping out dissent.
His rise grew out of massive anti-government protests in 2019 that grew into violent clashes.
As security secretary, he oversaw the police campaign to confront protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, then rounded many of them up for arrest later.
More than 150 people have been arrested under the security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs.
Almost all prominent pro-democracy activists have been jailed, with others fleeing abroad or being intimidated into silence.
Thousands of residents have left the city of 7.4 million people amid the 2019 protests and subsequent harsh pandemic restrictions, including many professionals and expatriates.
In his election campaign in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s polls, Mr Lee pledged to enact long-shelved local legislation to protect against security threats and vowed to increase housing supply in the world’s most expensive real estate market.
He also said he would improve the city’s competitiveness and set a firm foundation for its development.