President Xi Jinping meets with John Lee, the newly appointed sixth-term chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), in Beijing, capital of China, May 30, 2022. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

OPINION – From John Lee’s Beijing visit to the selection of principal officials

The visit of Hong Kong Chief Executive-designate John Lee to Beijing on May 30 and his selection of principal officials for the new government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) starting from July 1 have significant implications for Beijing-Hong Kong relations.

On May 30, John Lee met President Xi Jinping in Beijing. President Xi affirmed that Lee “has a firm position on loving the nation and Hong Kong,” that he is “active and willing to shoulder the responsibility,” and that he “contributes to the protection of national security and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” As such, the central government “fully affirms” Lee’s work and “fully trusts” him.

President Xi remarked that the new electoral system allows Hong Kong to implement the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong,” to protect citizens to have the right of being the “masters,” and to promote each social stratum and sector to play a “decisive role” in building up Hong Kong. Therefore, the “democratic system” in Hong Kong should be cherished and persisted in the long run, for it is suitable for Hong Kong’s circumstances and developmental needs. Xi added that the center “comprehensively” and “unwaveringly” implements the principle of “one country, two systems.”

Most importantly, President Xi commented that Hong Kong has already realized the important transition from “chaos to governance,” and that the HKSAR is now “at a crucial juncture from governance to emergence.” Hence, the President believes that the new HKSAR government will mark a “new chapter” in the city’s development.

President Xi’s significant remarks showed that John Lee is fully appraised and trusted by the central leadership for his contributions to the protection of national security. Implicitly, Article 23 of the Basic Law must be legislated locally soon, while a new Internet Security Law will be prepared and enacted to work alongside with the national security law to protect Beijing’s national security in the HKSAR.

After the promulgation and implementation of the national security law for Hong Kong since late June 2020, the process of turning “chaos” to “governance” was completed, but the current stage of Hong Kong’s development has to transform “governance” into “emergence” so that the HKSAR’s prosperity will be fostered. Hence, President Xi’s remarks explained why John Lee was chosen as the next Chief Executive of the HKSAR, as Lee is shouldering the important responsibility of the “second” transition from governance to prosperity in the next five years. 

Xi’s remarks on the persistence of “one country, two systems” are important for Beijing-HKSAR relations, meaning that the people of Hong Kong should be confident about the center’s commitment to the stability and prosperity of the HKSAR. This central intention is in line with its strategy of using the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” to deal with the question of Taiwan’s future in the coming years. Once Hong Kong’s situation is stabilized, we can expect Beijing to focus its attention on the Taiwan issue, especially after the Congress of the Communist Party of China in the coming October.

Some Hong Kong people interpreted President Xi’s remarks on the persistence of electoral system as saying that the Hong Kong democrats should not push for universal suffrage. However, on May 31, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that while the new electoral system will have to be persisted, she reminded the media of Article 45 of the Basic Law on the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage. She also reminded the media that the previous electoral system in the HKSAR had allowed “unpatriotic” people to sneak into the legislature, and that they “conspired with foreign forces” to disrupt the Hong Kong polity. 

Objectively speaking, President Xi said that the new electoral system, which guarantees the dominance of patriotic elites in the Legislative Council, will have to continue. But he did not really say anything about the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage. As such, the President’s remarks were overinterpreted by some media in Hong Kong.

When John Lee met Premier Li Keqiang, the premier made some comments. First, Premier Li echoed President Xi in saying that the center persists in accurately implementing the principles of “one country, two systems” and “a high degree of autonomy” for the HKSAR. Second, echoing President Xi, Premier Li said the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” should be resolutely implemented, implying the persistence of the new electoral system. Third, Premier Li added that the center is an important shield for Hong Kong’s challenges and difficulties. Fourth, Premier Li hoped that the new government of the HKSAR will “comprehensively unite people from various sectors” and that it will be “responsive to the societal concerns” and “continuously improving its governing capability.” Fifth, Li hoped that Hong Kong will maximize its traditional strengths and elevate its competitiveness by consolidating the status of monetary and financial center, aviation and trade, and building up an innovation and technology centers. Sixth, he hoped that Hong Kong will control Covid-19 well and improve the people’s livelihood so that the well-being of the people will be better.

Premier Li’s remarks are politically significant for Beijing-HKSAR relations. He firstly echoed President Xi’s broad principles of governing Hong Kong. Li spoke to the concrete policy issues, most of which were discussed in John Lee’s campaign platform, especially on how to increase Hong Kong’s competitiveness and improve governing capability and the people’s livelihood. The Premier’s remarks went to the substance of John Lee’s policy plans. Li’s hope on the new government’s ability to unite the people and be responsive to the society meant that the central authorities paid special attention on the line-up of John Lee’s government from July 1 onwards.

On May 31, Lee met Xia Baolong, the Director of the State Council’s Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office. Both exchanged views on the formation of the HKSAR government. Once Lee returned to Hong Kong on the afternoon of May 31, he told the media that the selection of his governing team will depend on individual ability, experiences, vision, responsibilities and policy ideas. For the details on the batch of new ministers, John Lee said that he will make an announcement when all the procedures are completed. Implicitly, Lee has to select the ministers on the one hand and to seek the views, support and endorsement of the central authorities on the other hand.

On June 2, the Hong Kong media reported that Eric Chan Kwok-ki was tipped to be the next Chief Secretary for Administration under the John Lee government. Chan was the former Director of Immigration from 2011 to 2017 and has been the Director of the Chief Executive’s Office since July 2017. Most importantly, in June 2020, Chan was appointed as the Secretary General of Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the HKSAR. His rich experiences in security-related work and close working relationships with mainland authorities made him a strong candidate for the position of the Chief Secretary. The local media reports speculated that Paul Chan will likely remain as the Financial Secretary.

On the other hand, the mainland side handling Hong Kong and Macau affairs envisaged new personnel appointments. While the deputy director of the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office, Zhang Xiaoming, was sent to be the deputy secretary of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Zheng Xincong, a Fujian-born official and the former party secretary of Fujian, was appointed as the new Director of the Macau Liaison Office. Hence, personnel changes are occurring not only in the HKSAR leadership but also the leading mainland officials managing Hong Kong and Macau affairs. 

In conclusion, John Lee’s visit to Beijing showed that while the central leadership fully trusts and supports the Chief Executive-designate, he is expected to nominate a strong batch of principal officials in consultation with the central authorities. The remarks made by President Xi and Premier Li on Hong Kong are politically significant. While President Xi affirms the continuation of the “one country, two systems” and the new electoral system that safeguards the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” Premier Li is interested in the specifics of how Hong Kong’s competitiveness, citizens’ livelihood, and governing capability will be enhanced. President Xi’s comment that Hong Kong is entering the crucial stage of turning “governance” to “emergence” is politically significant, for the HKSAR under the new leadership of John Lee is expected to persist in not only the protection of national security, but also the improvement of governance and the people’s livelihood and the restoration of economic prosperity in Hong Kong where Covid-19 is weakening. If Covid-19 is really under control in the HKSAR, the opening of the mainland border with Hong Kong will be a matter of time.