John Lee, Hong Kong’s subsequent chief, is a hardline former police officer who took on town’s protesters

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Final week, the person who led the crackdown stepped onto a stage to put out his imaginative and prescient for Hong Kong — this time not as town’s safety chief, however its subsequent chief.

In what the federal government has billed as an “open, simply and trustworthy” election, a largely government-appointed, pro-Beijing committee of 1,461 folks will appoint the subsequent chief for town’s 7.5 million residents on Sunday. Lee is the one particular person within the working, in distinction to earlier years that noticed run-offs between a number of candidates.
For a lot of, Lee’s ascension speaks volumes concerning the course Hong Kong — as soon as world-renowned for its strong press, flourishing civil society and democratic aspirations — is headed. Lee has already indicated that he’ll look to introduce additional nationwide safety laws and presumably a regulation towards faux information.
To Nathan Regulation, a human rights activist and former native lawmaker now in self-exile in Britain, it appears “very apparent” why Lee is tipped for the position.

“It actually indicators (authorities) are intensifying that heavy-handed method to Hong Kong, and placing the so-called nationwide safety as their coverage for governing town,” Regulation stated.

An increase years within the making

The forces behind Lee’s rise to town’s prime job may be traced again almost half a century.

Lee joined the Hong Kong police pressure as a 19-year-old recruit in 1977 as town — then a British colony — underwent an financial transformation into a contemporary monetary heart.

He rose by way of the ranks and was promoted to chief superintendent in 1997 — the identical yr Britain handed town to China in a pomp-filled ceremony watched all over the world.

Since that watershed yr, activists like Regulation say they’ve watched Hong Kong’s freedoms be squeezed ever tighter. All of the whereas, Lee continued gaining prominence, changing into deputy commissioner, the second-highest place within the police pressure, by 2010.

Simply two years after that, he joined town’s Safety Bureau as under-secretary. To some, the appointment of a high-ranking police officer to a key authorities workplace was a press release of intent.

“We have been already actually nervous about that, as a result of that actually signaled a change in Hong Kong’s coverage, altering it in a seemingly extra suppressive means,” Regulation stated.

By 2016, when Regulation was elected into the legislature, Lee “was already notoriously tough to take care of” and appeared hostile to any journalists or opposition lawmakers who raised questions or challenges, Regulation stated.

Lee’s supporters have disputed this characterization, sustaining his time within the police pressure helped put together him for a public workplace.

One pro-Beijing lawmaker, Ma Fung-kwok, stated Lee had demonstrated “management abilities” in his dealing with of the protests and the pandemic, in response to public broadcaster RTHK. One other, Jeffrey Lam, stated Lee had “solved many instances” within the police pressure and may cooperate with “different sectors within the society.”

At a quick political rally on Friday, Lee, whose slogan is “We and us — a brand new chapter collectively,” harassed the significance of neighborhood and promised to “make Hong Kong a spot of hope” as soon as appointed.

CNN has reached out to Lee’s marketing campaign staff for remark.

The 2019 protests

Lee’s rise continued when he was appointed safety chief in 2017 — the “starting of a altering pattern,” stated Joseph Cheng, a retired Hong Kong educational and pro-democracy activist now primarily based in New Zealand.

“Beijing appears to be emphasizing loyalty extra, or the potential of implementing a tough line — due to this fact, senior officers from the disciplinary forces seem to occupy a extra advantageous place,” Cheng stated.

It was underneath Lee’s tenure that the Safety Bureau launched the controversial extradition invoice that led to the protests in 2019.

Critics anxious Beijing might use the invoice to prosecute Hong Kong residents for political causes underneath China’s opaque authorized system.

Protesters march against a proposed extradition bill on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong.

With the Hong Kong authorities standing agency on the invoice regardless of public objections, the protests rapidly expanded right into a broader pro-democracy, anti-government motion. Fears have been underpinned by widespread nervousness about Beijing’s rising affect and the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s cherished semi-autonomous standing, which allowed it the freedoms of press, speech and meeting that had lengthy been central to its worldwide enchantment.

Withdrawing the invoice was simply one among 5 well-liked calls for by protesters; others included common suffrage and accountability from police, who confronted accusations of brutality they’ve denied.

On the peak of the disaster, protesters and police clashed almost each week, with demonstrators lobbing bricks and Molotov cocktails and officers responding with tear fuel, rubber bullets, and at occasions dwell ammunition. The violence polarized town, cementing the breakdown in belief between the general public and the authorities.

A protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by police in Hong Kong on October 1, 2019.
Via all of it, Lee praised his officers as “brave” and condemned protesters as “radicals” who have been sowing “terror.” When lots of of protesters — many highschool college students — occupied a college for greater than every week, police laid siege to the campus with Lee declaring: “We are going to arrest all of them.”

Lee has repeatedly defended the pressure’s actions, insisting critics must “take into consideration the (previous occasions), in any other case it is not going to be honest.”

“I’m happy with the Hong Kong police pressure. They continue to be Asia’s most interesting … In comparison with what they do with regulation enforcement companies abroad, I believe they’ve exercised restraint. They’ve minimized the hurt and accidents to everyone,” he stated in September 2019.

Lengthy arm of the nationwide safety regulation

Lee gained native prominence for his position in combating the protests — however his implementation of the nationwide safety regulation cemented his fame as a hardline enforcer and Beijing loyalist.

The safety regulation was promulgated by Beijing in June 2020, throughout a lull within the protests introduced by the Covid-19 pandemic. Described by the Hong Kong authorities on the time as “an important step to ending chaos,” the regulation criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with international forces — and permits for optimum sentences of life imprisonment.

Straight away, Hong Kong’s social and political panorama was reworked, and inside months, most of the metropolis’s main pro-democracy figures have been both in jail or exile.
Police officers raid the Apple Daily headquarters in Hong Kong on August 10, 2020.
Underneath the safety regulation, Lee oversaw the mass arrest of opposition figures in 2021, accusing them of making an attempt to “paralyze the Hong Kong authorities” by organizing a pro-democracy major election.
He ordered a police raid on Hong Kong’s greatest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Day by day, which was subsequently compelled to close after its property have been frozen and several other workers arrested underneath the safety regulation.

Every week after the raid, Lee was promoted to chief secretary — the second-highest place in authorities — and the primary time a safety official has taken the position.

Consultants say Lee’s suppression of the protests and assist for nationwide safety is exactly why he now finds himself town’s subsequent chief.

“(That is) the reward for loyalty,” stated Cheng, the activist and former educational.

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Supporters of the safety regulation insist it has helped set up stability within the wake of the violence and political unrest of 2019. “Folks’s lives and property are protected, and so they can as soon as once more get pleasure from their official rights and freedoms,” a authorities spokesperson stated in April in response to a query on the regulation.

However Lee’s affiliation with the regulation has been met with rising scrutiny overseas. He was amongst almost a dozen folks sanctioned by the US in 2020 for undermining town’s autonomy and democratic processes — which Lee has scoffed at, lately calling the sanctions “unreasonable” and “acts of bullying.”

He has additionally continued to defend the regulation, in addition to latest electoral modifications that positioned him on the head of a vetting committee to display screen all candidates, making certain solely “patriots” can be allowed to run for workplace.

The nationwide safety regulation “has restored peace,” Lee instructed the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, decrying the 2019 protests as “evil” and lauding “the improved electoral system.”

“No nation has a monopoly on the mannequin of democracy,” he added.

What this implies for Hong Kong

Lee has already made clear the sort of authorities he’ll form: one with more and more shut ties to mainland China.

On the unveiling of his coverage manifesto on April 29, Lee emphasised the necessity to combine Hong Kong with different economically necessary Chinese language cities. There was no English translation offered, regardless of English being one among Hong Kong’s two official languages — in putting distinction to most authorities occasions to this point.

He additionally vowed to bolster safety laws and introduce “nationwide identification” training. Each proposals have lengthy been controversial, with earlier makes an attempt to introduce laws foiled by protests and pushback — a lot to Beijing’s frustration.

Lee has additionally beforehand voiced assist for a “faux information” regulation — prompting fears the reins will solely tighten on what stays of town’s media and civil teams. Final week, town’s press freedom rating plunged to a report low of 148 amongst 180 areas, in comparison with its rating of 73rd in 2019.
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Regardless of this, the outgoing Chief Govt Lam continues to assert that Hong Kong’s media sphere is “as vibrant as ever,” although she warned final week that “media organizations are usually not above the regulation … together with the nationwide safety regulation.”

Lee may also need to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, with endurance fraying amongst many in Hong Kong after greater than two years of stringent restrictions in accordance with China’s unbending zero-Covid coverage.

At his coverage manifesto occasion, Lee asserted that “sooner or later (the virus) will probably be underneath management,” and that he would design measures to permit companies to function.

Cheng, the pro-democracy activist who moved to New Zealand, sees the longer term as being “the continuation of the onerous line of the previous two years.”

“There isn’t a toleration of political opposition … there will probably be little or no tolerance of an impartial media, and little or no tolerance for the operation of civil society organizations,” Cheng stated.

When requested by CNN about accusations of diminished political freedoms, a authorities spokesperson responded that the rights of Hong Kong residents are “protected in accordance with the regulation” — however that “many freedoms and rights are usually not absolute, and may be restricted for causes together with safety of nationwide safety and public security.”

Disillusionment and emigration

Amongst former activists and pro-democracy supporters, there is a sense of despair as Lee prepares to take workplace.

The circumstances of his choice, with Lee as the only contender showered with reward by pro-Beijing lawmakers, lower significantly deep for a lot of of those that as soon as marched to demand larger democratic freedoms.

“It is undoubtedly not, by any means or any parameters, a democratic (course of),” stated Regulation, the previous lawmaker. “It is actually simply an appointment. I do not actually name it an election.”

Lee has dodged questions on whether or not he was handpicked by the central Chinese language authorities, saying in April he welcomed anyone else who wished to run.

He has since obtained endorsements from main institution figures, together with two former police commissioners and two former safety chiefs, RTHK reported.
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After the turmoil of the previous three years, even a brand new administration is unlikely to bridge the damaged relationship between the federal government and its folks, stated John Burns, emeritus professor on the College of Hong Kong.

“There’s a large share of the inhabitants that’s alienated and indignant,” he stated, pointing to mass emigration as “proof of alienation … of a sick society.”

Locals, expatriates and international corporations are leaving town in droves. Greater than 100,000 Hong Kongers utilized for a brand new visa providing a path to citizenship in Britain final yr; and in February and March alone this yr, greater than 180,000 folks left town whereas solely about 39,000 entered, in response to immigration information.

Whereas Hong Kong’s harsh Covid restrictions are serving to drive this exodus, Lee’s critics say that so too is the crackdown on civil liberties he enforced.

Requested about this on April 29, Lee brushed it off. He claimed Hong Kong had at all times seen excessive ranges of mobility, and that its proximity to the mainland market would proceed to draw companies.

“We’re an inclusive metropolis,” he instructed reporters. “Collectively, we begin a brand new chapter for Hong Kong.”

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