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Hong Kong leader appointment violates democratic norms: EU foreign policy chief

John Lee, who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was appointed Hong Kong leader on Sunday by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

John Lee celebrates with his wife after declaring his victory in the chief executive election of Hong Kong.
John Lee celebrates with his wife after declaring his victory in the chief executive election of Hong Kong.
Image: Kin Cheung/PA

Updated May 8th 2022, 11:41 AM

THE EUROPEAN UNION’S foreign policy chief has said the anointment of a former security chief as Hong Kong’s new leader violated democratic norms.

John Lee, 64, who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was appointed Hong Kong leader on Sunday by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

“The European Union regrets this violation of democratic principles and political pluralism and sees this selection process as yet another step in the dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” Josep Borrell Fontelles said in a statement.

“The European Union attaches great importance to the preservation of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including media freedom, democratic principles and the rule of law, in line with the Basic Law and with international commitments,” it said.

“The EU calls on Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to abide by their national and international commitments, notably the ultimate aim of electing the Chief Executive and members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.”

Lee, who is under US sanctions, was the only candidate in the Beijing-backed race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam.

hong-kong-elections Lee was elected as Hong Kong's next leader by an election committee comprised of nearly 1,500 largely pro-Beijing members. Source: Kin Cheung/PA

His appointment places a security official in the top job for the first time after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and debilitating pandemic controls.

Lee received 1,416 votes in the chief executive election, far exceeding the 751 votes he needed to win and the highest support ever for the city’s top leadership position.

“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,” Lee said in his victory speech.

He will replace Lam on 1 July.

As the only candidate in the polls, Lee was expected to win, especially since he had Beijing’s endorsement and last month obtained 786 nominations from members of the Election Committee in support of his candidacy.

Lam congratulated Lee in a statement and said she would submit the election results to Beijing.

“The present-term government and I will ensure a seamless transition with the Chief Executive-elect. We will render all the support needed for the assumption of office by the new term of government,” Lam’s statement said.

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.

Though they voted in a secret ballot, Hong Kong’s electors were all carefully vetted.

The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong also congratulated Lee in a statement and said the election was conducted in a “fair, just and orderly manner in accordance with laws and regulations”.

“Lee received many nominations and was elected with a high number of 1,416 votes. This is not only the solemn choice of the election committee, but also a strong expression of public opinion,” the statement read.

Mainland China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council also congratulated Lee in a statement, saying 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.

The statement added that the new chief executive will lead the Hong Kong government and “people from all walks of life to forge ahead in unity”.

The British handed Hong Kong over to mainland China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework, which promised the city certain freedoms not found on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly.

Critics say these freedoms are being eroded as Beijing has exerted greater control over the former British colony in recent years.

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Protests

This morning, three members of the League of Social Democrats, a local activist group, protested the vote by attempting to march toward 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.

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 today’s polls, 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.

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