John Lee confirmed Hong Kong’s next leader after facing no opposition

John Lee has been confirmed as Hong Kong’s next chief executive following a campaign that critics labelled as absurd after Beijing backed his candidacy and no one else ran for election.

Lee, the city’s former security minister and an ex-policeman, more than 1,416 votes on Sunday from the 1,461-member “patriots only” selection committee comprised of mostly pro-Beijing politicians and businesspeople that represents 0.02 per cent of the city’s 7.4mn population. Just eight votes were recorded against Lee’s appointment.

“We can all happily embrace this very historical day,” Lee told supporters after the results were announced.

The vast majority of the city’s political opposition are either in jail or have fled the city after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. The measure has been used to crack down on individuals and organisations deemed disloyal to the government.

But authorities still attempted to sell the new leader to the city’s residents, whose voting power had been steadily disenfranchised by Beijing-led political reforms.

The latest overhaul in 2021 was dubbed “patriots ruling Hong Kong”, and led to the introduction of a vetting process for all candidates and reduced the number of directly elected lawmakers in the city’s legislative assembly.

Thousands of banners and other promotional materials for Lee’s campaign were splashed across the city ahead of Sunday’s vote, and local authorities allocated more than HK$220mn (US$28mn) for the process, even though his anointment by the central government was assured.

In previous elections, Beijing has signalled its preference for a candidate but allowed rivals to run, often attracting votes from Hong Kong’s business elite.

“[Lee] is going to be endorsed anyway. So you could say that this is a waste of time and money,” said John P Burns, an emeritus professor in politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong. “There is a sense of unrealness to it, and absurdity.”

Ho-Fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who studies Hong Kong’s politics, said the election was a charade. “Now there is no competitor, it’s a pure facade now,” he said.

But political analyst Sonny Lo said it was important for Beijing to go through with the process of an election. “Beijing cares about the legitimacy of this election as it symbolises the realisation of a Hong Kong-style of democracy,” he said.

Lee, 64, made a handful of choreographed campaign visits with pre-selected families in old tenement buildings and held a rally on Friday that members of the public were not allowed to attend. His campaign, which has a designated office, previously held a televised forum with no live audience.

Lau Siu-kai, a Beijing adviser and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a semi-official think-tank, dismissed criticism of the “patriotic” leadership selection process. The high voting turnout and endorsement rate for Lee “reflected a high degree of unity among patriots”, he said.

“[Beijing] has never said that democratisation is the major preference,” he said. “The process is also beneficial to [reassure the central government] that Hong Kong will not become a national security threat.”

Local businesses and property tycoons are keen for Lee to revive Hong Kong’s pandemic-hit economy after the city recorded a worse than expected 4 per cent contraction in gross domestic product in the first quarter of the year compared with same period in 2021.

“If we do not loosen [Covid] restrictions when other places in the region are relaxing them . . . our economy will not be able to recover in a long, long time,” said Stewart Leung, vice chair of real estate conglomerate Wheelock Properties.

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