It’s Hot Mike and I’m Nidhi Rajdan.
Hong Kong got a new leader last week. Former security chief John Lee Ka-chiu was “elected” to the post, an election where he was the sole candidate. It is a move that critics say Hong Kong has turned into a full-fledged police state and Lee’s appointment will only strengthen Beijing’s grip on the city, which has seen China use heavy hands to stifle pro-democracy voices.
The former British colony is nowhere near its old nature under the rule of Beijing. John Lee, not surprisingly, is a staunch pro-China. He was not even directly elected by the people, but was chosen by Beijing.
A selection committee of Beijing loyalists selected John Lee as head of Hong Kong. So what do we know about this 64 year old leader? In the beginning he has a police background. He joined the Hong Kong Police Force in 1977 at the age of 20. When he was promoted to security secretary in the last administration, he became the face of local government as massive street protests in 2019 shook Hong Kong. Those protests were for an extradition bill that would send suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China, where courts operate under the ruling Communist Party. The protests, which began peacefully, also turned violent.
The police then fell under intense inspection and were criticized for their strict intervention while using water gas, rubber bullets and even living ammunition against the protesters. And the police come under John Lee.
Lee, however, strongly defended the use of force by police, saying that the violent actions of some protesters were “terrorism” and “extremism.” Lee has since been slapped with U.S. sanctions for undermining the city’s autonomy during the protests.
China’s authoritarian rule in Hong Kong came quickly, but many noted that it took many years to create. There are those who believe that Xi Jinping will not go too far because of Hong Kong’s important financial role in the world. But how far he would go was clearly underestimated.
In June 2020, China passed a strict national security law for Hong Kong, which made it easier to punish protesters and dissidents, and arrested more than 100 people. This law has stopped the publication of independent media.
Journalists and media executives have been charged with “collusion with foreign powers” as well as sedition. The pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close in 2021, and its founder, Jimmy Like, has been charged with foreign collusion under the National Security Act.
The New York Times moved part of its Asia program from Hong Kong to Seoul. Almost all prominent pro-democracy activists have been jailed, others have fled abroad or fled in fear. Civil liberties and human rights simply do not exist.
Thousands of residents, including many professionals and expatriates, have fled Hong Kong amid protests in 2019 and subsequent drastic epidemic restrictions. John Lee is also part of a new committee that oversees national security issues. He backed the new law, which he said would restore “stability from chaos.” So it is clear that security issues will be a priority during his tenure, including a controversial security law known as ‘Article 23’, which would require Hong Kong to enact legislation “on its own” to ban sedition, secession, and any act of sedition. Rebellion against the central government or theft of state secrecy, as well as banning foreign political organizations or organizations from conducting political activities in the city. He also told the media last year that the Hong Kong government would look into enacting legislation calling him “fake news.” The Chinese Communist Party has effectively stopped the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
In March 2021, the Chinese parliament passed a law empowering a pro-Beijing committee in Hong Kong to examine candidates for the Hong Kong legislature, making it virtually impossible for any pro-democracy candidate to run for office.
Hong Kong authorities have also banned the city’s annual Tiananmen Surveillance to commemorate the June 4, 1989 genocide in Beijing. The United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, the Netherlands and other Western nations have suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong amid concerns that the city authorities could abuse the agreements for political gain.
The United States has also revoked Hong Kong’s special status, stripped it of preferential trade privileges, and banned the export of sensitive technology.
Businesses, however, did not leave Hong Kong as some had predicted they might. But financial institutions are struggling to comply with contradictory sanctions.
Schools in the city now need to include “national security” in their curriculum. Teachers have also been fired for classroom content that is considered destructive or treasonous. And there are strict new rules that prohibit “disrespecting the country.”
Several pro-democracy trade unions and organizations have also been disbanded. There is the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy group that organized some of the largest protests in 2019 – which was disbanded after a police investigation under the new strict national security law. Other pro-democracy activists were also arrested for participating in the protests, which were deemed illegal.
John Lee is taking power at a time when the global financial center is struggling with the Hong Kong epidemic, but it also needs to address issues such as housing shortages and growing inequality.
However, it is clear that very few people have the voice to question his or Beijing’s authority.