(Xinhua/Lui Siu Wai)

OPINION – An analysis of John Lee’s participation in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Elections

The decision of John Lee to run for the sixth Chief Executive elections in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) on April 6, the prompt approval of China’s State Council to approve his resignation from the position of the Chief Secretary for Administration on April 7, and the content of Lee’s press conference on April 9 have significant political implications for Hong Kong.

First, although some media commentators and political elites expressed their surprise at the central government’s immediate support of John Lee’s decision to run in the upcoming election, a careful analysis of Lee’s recent career development – from the Assistant Police Commissioner (2003-2011) to Undersecretary for Security (2012-2017), Secretary for Security (2017-May 2021), and then Chief Secretary (June 2021-April 2022) – has shown that he had a strong record of dealing with security issues in the HKSAR. Many observers in Hong Kong have ignored the fact that while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since late 2012 has been witnessing a trend of securitization (political security, economic security, public health security, cultural security, to name just a few), the HKSAR was plunged into a crisis of legitimacy by socio-political movements (anti-national education movement in 2012, Occupy Central Movement in September-December 2014, Mongkok riot in early 2016, oath-taking controversy in October-November 2016, and anti-extradition movement in June-November 2019). It is natural that the central authorities see security as the top priority issue for the HKSAR, especially because external and foreign influences on Hong Kong matters were seen as politically and legally unacceptable under the national security law, which was promulgated in late June 2020. 

According to some Hong Kong news reports, Chinese officials who met some of the 1,500 members of the Election Committee, which will select the Chief Executive, revealed that Mr. Lee would be the only candidate in the upcoming election. If so, it is clear that the HKSAR is required to protect its political and regime security as the top priority. 

Second, sceptics who question whether Mr John Lee has the expertise in financial and economic affairs have neglected three issues: (1) the previous Hong Kong Chief Executives (Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang, C.Y. Leung and Carrie Lam) were by no means financial experts; (2) the role of the Chief Executive, as John Lee pointed out in his response to reporters’ questions on April 9, is to build up a team of ministers who are knowledgeable and competent to lead the government of the HKSAR; and (3) it has traditionally been the Finance Secretary who specializes in financial and economic affairs, together with support and work from the Secretary for the Financial Services and the Treasury.

The Chinese officials have seen Hong Kong’s financial and international monetary centre as strong and stable. Sceptics of John Lee’s participation have appeared to question whether Hong Kong’s financial and international status has already declined because of the outward migration of many expatriates and middle-class locals in the recent months. Indeed, the outward migration of expatriates and emigration of Hongkongers demand a more sophisticated immigration policy of the HKSAR government to attract foreign talents and retain locals – a task that John Lee, if elected as the Chief Executive, would have to tackle together with a more detailed population policy (attracting what types of mainland talents, for example) and a better higher education training geared to the needs of the HKSAR.

Third, what was interesting in this election was that the media kept on spreading rumours saying that (1) Chief Executive Carrie Lam would continue, that (2) other candidates would likely run before the news concerning only one candidate, namely John Lee, were heard. As it turned out, Carrie Lam said on April 4 that she had decided not to run for the sixth Chief Executive election as early as March 2021. Many observers have neglected some previous political gestures from Chief Executive Carrie Lam that she would not continue to run, including the fact that when she mentioned her family in public in 2021, she became a bit emotional. Most importantly, in a December 2021 meeting between Carrie Lam and President Xi Jinping, for the first time the official photo released by authorities did not show that they shook hands, unlike the previous annual meetings. Instead, many commentators pointed to the sluggish performance of the HKSAR government in dealing with the spread of Omicron in March 2022 as a “crucial” factor leading to Lam’s “late” decision of not running. Nevertheless, there was often an illusion in the media, and among Lam’s staunch supporters, that she would continue in some ways. Her supporters and many observers have forgotten that during the anti-extradition movement in 2019, it was reported by Reuters that she once toyed with the idea of stepping down from the position of the Chief Executive – an idea rejected by central authorities. In short, many analysts of Carrie Lam’s moves were inaccurate mainly because of their failure to carefully observe her gestures, including the important meeting between her and President Xi in December 2021.

Fourth, some media were also wrong in that they predicted that there would be other contenders, like the former Chief Executive C. Y. Leung and the Financial Secretary Paul Chan. When news reports pointed to the intention of the central government to appoint Leung as the convenor of the Election Committee, it was clear that such a move would mean that only a Hong Kong person with the state-level leadership can take over such a prestigious and highly respectable political position. The convenor is supposed to be politically standing above the Chief Executive election. Furthermore, when Paul Chan publicly said on the afternoon of April 6 that he wished John Lee “smoothness in everything,” it was clear that Chan would be unlikely running in the election. 

Perhaps some business elites hoped that Chan would run for the election. But as the news reports revealed that Lee would be the only candidate, many business elites began to express their public support of him.

Fifth, John Lee has secured the campaign assistance from Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong member of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress. On April 9, Tam said that he hoped to secure at least 500 nominations in support of Lee, and that Lee would hopefully get a high number of votes in the election. Tam’s remarks were politically significant, meaning that the politics of nomination and elections have the objective of acquiring a high degree of legitimacy for Mr. John Lee through a large number of nominations ad voting.

Sixth, a careful reading of the composition of the 17 directors and deputy directors of Lee’s campaign office shows that they comprise legislators and some pro-Beijing elites. From the perspective of united front, his campaign office is led by a group of patriots who will help Lee obtain a high number of nominations and votes in the election. It remains to be seen who will be the patriotic elites appointed to the ministerial positions and the membership of the top policy-making Executive Council (ExCo). Predictably, some core members of the Democratic Progressive Alliance for the Betterment and Progress (DAB) of Hong Kong will likely be appointed continuously to the ExCo and to a few positions of the Principal Officials, including the possibility of “recapturing” the Secretary for Home Affairs whose former DAB member Casper Tsui resigned due to his involvement in a birthday party amid the outbreak of Omicron.

Seventh, from the perspective of balancing and uniting different factions in the HKSAR, it would be important to observe how many ministerial and ExCo positions would be occupied by several factions in Hong Kong politics: namely (1) the DAB, (2) the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, (3) the fragmented business elites, (4) the mainland-born Hongkongers some of whom were elected to the Legislative Council in December 2021; and (4) the professionals who are not affiliated with any political groups or parties. The business elites remain fragmented and are composed of the members from the Liberal Party, the Business Professional Alliance, and other non-affiliated people. It is likely that some directors and deputy directors would lobby John Lee to select their recommended elites to be the ministers and ExCo members, but the final say would be the central authorities. In short, the politics of personnel appointment will deserve our attention. 

Eighth, since the PRC is governed by one single dominant ruling party and faction, the central authorities would naturally like to envisage a more unified ruling coalition under John Lee. Lee said in the press conference on April 9 that he would like to have a united team building up Hong Kong’s competitiveness, achieving results, and laying down the foundation of stability. The results-oriented governing philosophy will depend on whether the governing coalition members will remain united, will coordinate among themselves efficiently, and will communicate with the public effectively. While the national security law and its implementation will undoubtedly ensure the foundation of stability, it remains to be seen how Hong Kong’s competitiveness will be retained amid the challenges of outward migration and the demand for economic integration into the Greater Bay Area.

In conclusion, the participation of John Lee in the sixth Chief Executive election in the HKSAR has significant implications. It signals the top priority of national and regime security that Beijing adopts on its policy toward Hong Kong. It proves that the sceptics who question John Lee’s credentials have swept under the carpet that while China does not see any problem in the status of Hong Kong as a financial and an international centre, the financial and economic development of the HKSAR has traditionally been the portfolio of the Financial Secretary rather than the Chief Executive, who is the leader in the process of team-building and ministerial formation. The Hong Kong media have overestimated Carrie Lam’s political “ambition” and underestimated her priority accorded to her family, while neglecting the important interaction between Lam and President Xi in December 2021. The media’s quest for other potential candidates for the HKSAR have also neglected the fact that the central authorities do not want to witness factional struggles in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election. The challenge for Lee and his supporters, however, is to gain a high number of nominations and votes in the election. Above all, in the process of rebuilding united front work among the fragmented and factionalized elites in the HKSAR, John Lee will not have an easy task of selecting his ministers and ExCo members. Yet, with the strong support of central authorities, he will likely be able to build up his own team of ministers and advisers so that his objectives of enhancing Hong Kong’s competitiveness, results-oriented approach, and stable foundation will hopefully be achieved in the coming years, if he would be elected as the Chief Executive.