A sanctioned ex-cop is Hong Kong’s new chief executive

John Lee celebrates after being elected as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
John Lee celebrates after being elected as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
Image: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
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John Lee, a career police official turned security bureaucrat, became Hong Kong’s new chief executive on Sunday (May 8), after “winning” Hong Kong’s most one-sided election in decades. Lee earned 1,416 of 1,424 electoral college votes—but he was the only candidate permitted to stand by Beijing.

Lee replaces Carrie Lam, who served her five-year term during a time of enormous tumult. She witnessed—and, with Lee’s help, violently put down—pro-democracy protests in 2019. Under Lam, a sweeping law, passed in 2020, made it a crime to criticize the Chinese Communist Party in any way. The law was enforced by a new national security apparatus that has charged citizens with secession and terrorism, shut down newspapers, and punished protesters.

In 2020, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Lam and 10 others for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.” On the sanctions list was Lee, who was the secretary for security at the time. Lee was sanctioned, the Treasury Department notice said, “for being involved in coercing, arresting, detaining, or imprisoning individuals under the authority of the National Security Law, as well as being involved in its development, adoption, or implementation.”

Due to these sanctions, Lee was blocked from running his YouTube campaign channel. Meta prevented him from accessing Facebook payment services, although it left his page up.

Under John Lee, China’s control over Hong Kong will grow

Lee is very much Beijing’s man in Hong Kong. Last year, new electoral rules went into effect to keep only “patriots” in power. Lee needed China’s permission to quit his post as chief secretary in order to run. He was then voted in by an electoral college that he had helped vet last year.

He will inherit a Hong Kong that has been forced into submission not only by Chinese authority but also by the pandemic. Carrie Lam oversaw a response to covid-19 that was both draconian and ineffective: amid endless, Chinese-directed lockdowns, inflexible quarantines, and hamster culls, Hong Kong was slow to roll out vaccinations, particularly among the elderly.

People have been leaving Hong Kong in the thousands. In late February and early March, over three weeks, Hong Kong experienced a net exodus of 20,000 residents per week. But the pandemic restrictions are only part of the reason behind these departures. Just as crucial a factor is China’s rising control over Hong Kong—control that Lee helped to implement, and that he will now be able to extend as the new chief executive.