A former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement is set to be anointed the business hub’s new leader on Sunday by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.
John Lee, 64, was the only candidate in a Beijing-backed one-horse race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam.
His elevation will place 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.
Despite the city’s mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, the source of years of public frustration and protests since the 1997 handover to China.
Its leader is instead chosen by an “election committee” currently comprised of 1,461 people — roughly 0.02% of the city’s population.
That committee, made up of political and business elites vetted for their loyalty, began casting their ballots Sunday morning in a cavernous exhibition center on the city’s harborfront.
Lee needs to secure a simple majority, but with no rivals, his ascension is virtually guaranteed.
By 11:00 am (0300 GMT) 96% of the committee had cast their votes. Results are expected Sunday afternoon.
Heavy police presence
Protests have been largely outlawed in Hong Kong, with authorities using an anti-coronavirus ban on public gatherings of more than four people as well as a new national security law.
Police ringed the exhibition center with security, and 6,000 to 7,000 officers had been placed on standby, according to local media.
The League of Social Democrats — one of the only remaining pro-democracy groups — held a three-person protest before polls opened, chanting “Power to the people, universal suffrage now.”
“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like, a shrinking of our civil liberties,” said protester Vanessa Chan as dozens of police officers looked on.
“We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to be completely silent,” she added.
Under President Xi Jinping, China is remolding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
Beijing deployed a sweeping security law to stamp out dissent and rolled out a new “patriots only” political system for Hong Kong to guarantee anyone standing for office is considered suitably loyal.
A troubled city
While the democracy movement has been crushed, much of the population still resents Beijing’s rule and chafes at the city’s entrenched inequality.
Hong Kong also faces economic difficulties thanks to two years of strict pandemic curbs that have damaged its business hub reputation and left residents cut off as rivals re-open.
Under the slogan “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together,” Lee has vowed to bring in “result-oriented” governance, forge unity and reboot the city’s economy.
A 44-page manifesto he released last week stuck to broad goals and offered few concrete policies or targets.
Lee has said he will unveil more details when he makes his first policy address.
Hong Kong’s chief executives find themselves caught between the democratic aspirations of the city’s residents and the authoritarian demands of Beijing’s leaders.
Outgoing leader Carrie Lam is on track to leave office with record-low approval ratings.
According to a survey in March by the Public Opinion Research Institute, about 24% of the public has confidence in Lee, compared with 12% for Lam.
A housewife in her fifties who gave her surname Liu told AFP on Sunday that she and her friend passed by the voting venue before remembering it was Election Day.
Liu said she was willing to give Lee a chance to prove himself in office but had “no expectations at all.”
Lee will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain.
China agreed that Hong Kong could maintain certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after retaking control from Britain under a “One Country, Two Systems” formula.
Beijing and Lee say that formula is still intact.
Critics, including many Western powers, say it has been shredded.
Lee is one of 11 senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials sanctioned by the United States because of the political crackdown.