One candidate, one system? China leaves nothing to chance by installing next Hong Kong leader

The sole candidate offered from Beijing to serve as Hong Kong's chief executive, John Lee, was instrumental in overseeing the often-brutal responses of security forces over the past eight year to widespread protests pushing for democratic reforms.

Former top security official John Lee, 64, promises to keep close watch over acts of 'subversion'

John Lee greets supporters at a chief executive electoral campaign rally in Hong Kong on Friday. China is moving to install him as the new leader of Hong Kong in the culmination of a sweeping political transformation that has gutted the Asian financial centre's democratic institutions. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

When China announced a new national security law in 2020 to deal with what it saw as troublesome Hong Kong subversives, then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the U.S. going forward would treat Hong Kong as "one country, one system," and punish those repressing freedom in the city.

Beijing has had its own ideas ever since, and has offered up only one candidate to be Hong Kong's next chief executive, effective July 1.

Sole candidate John Lee was instrumental in the harsh responses to widespread protests in Hong Kong going back eight years. A former police officer, Lee was under secretary for security in Hong Kong from 2012 to 2017, when he was elevated to secretary for the next four years.

The election committee comprised of a cross-section of Chinese officials has already endorsed Lee for chief executive. He needs only a simple majority to win. Clearly, Beijing wants the Asian financial centre ever more under its sway.

The process for selecting candidates to vie for the Hong Kong leadership has always been opaque and designed to ensure Hong Kong residents only selected from applicants approved by Beijing. But Benedict Rogers, the British co-founder and CEO of the non-governmental organization Hong Kong Watch, said this year's process represented a new low.

"Every [chief executive] election since 1997 has been a stitch-up. But at least in the past they've pretended to have a contest," Rogers tweeted this week. "Yet this one is a farce."

From the arrest of pro-democracy legislators, to election law changes — Hong Kong has undergone extraordinary change after the implementation of Beijing’s national security law. Two pro-democracy activists, who recently fled to Canada, reflect on China’s tightening grip on the city-state.

The coronation, in effect, follows legislative council elections in December widely criticized by international democracies.

The election was the first under new laws in which the balance of lawmakers was skewed more heavily to control from Beijing. The number of lawmakers directly elected by Hong Kong residents was reduced from 35 to 20, while the body was expanded from 70 to 90 seats.

The new laws also grant a Chinese government committee the power to allow only so-called "patriots" as eligible candidates.

After the results, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. condemned the vote, expressing "grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements" in the electoral process as well as claw backs on freedom of expression and assembly.

Backlash of 'drastic speed'

That erosion followed years of clamour for greater choice in the electoral system. A push to elect Hong Kong's leader by popular vote cumulated in 2014 in weekslong "Yellow Umbrella" protests demanding Beijing also relinquish the right to approve candidates.

Several activists involved in those protests, including Nathan Law, were elected to Hong Kong's legislative council two years later. They enraged Communist Party officials during their swearing-in ceremonies by continuing to protest what they saw as Beijing's interference.

In 2019, massive pro-democracy protests often descended into violent clashes. As security secretary, Lee led the campaign to confront protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, then rounded many of them up for arrest.

The intensity of the 2019 protests appeared to have caught Beijing by surprise, prompting the imposition of the national security law the following year and the reorganization of the legislature.

A police officer prepares to swing his baton while restraining a protester outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on June 10, 2019. China would follow by enforcing national security laws that saw those arrested have their cases adjudicated in mainland courts. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

The suite of changes amended the Basic Law, the constitution that has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" framework that promised it semi-autonomy for 50 years.

More than 150 activists and others have been arrested since the national security law was imposed. Prominent young activist Joshua Wong as well as Jimmy Lai, founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, have been among those imprisoned.

"All our freedoms faded [at] a drastic speed that none of us could have expected," activist Nathan Law said in an interview with CBC News last year from London, where he was living.

WATCH | Nathan Law, granted political asylum, speaks to CBC in 2021:

Activist describes deterioration of democracy in Hong Kong

1 year ago
Duration 0:30
Former opposition politician Nathan Law describes the erosion of democratic rights in Hong Kong. Law, 27, was forced to flee after Beijing's crackdown.

What comes next

Former lawmaker and Democratic Party member Emily Lau called it a "very sad day" when the changes to the electoral laws were pushed through, but the repression could possibly get worse now.

Lee last month released a 44-page manifesto which focused on issue like housing and preventing brain drain — Canada and the United Kingdom have amended immigration rules for prospective Hong Kong emigres fleeing the crackdown — but security is also top of mind.

Kelvin Law and Ricker Choi are originally from Hong Kong, and now live in Canada. Both took part in pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, and are now supporting Ukraine in Toronto.

Lee promised to codify what had been included in Article 23 of the Basic Law, the ability for Hong Kong itself to enact laws to prohibit "any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government."

An attempt by Hong Kong authorities to do that in 2003 was met with fierce resistance, but given the crackdown of recent years, pushback may be muted next time.

Whether that bid succeeds or the 2020 national security law enacted by Beijing is still utilized, the difference for Hong Kongers who run afoul of authorities with dissent may be imperceptible.

Tom Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington, D.C., predicted in a recent social media post that under Lee, Chinese authorities would continue "to repress civil society in Hong Kong" and not just "perceived enemies from the 2019 protests."

That could come at the expense of Hong Kong's reputation as a safe place to do business, with a clear regulatory regime and independent judiciary. Britain has removed two judges who had been appointed to Hong Kong's top court to ensure the rule of law, saying their presence was "no longer tenable" because of increasingly oppressive laws enacted by China.

Lee, who will succeed Carrie Lam as chief executive, acknowledged Friday that Hong Kong has deep-rooted problems. He pledged to "consolidate Hong Kong as an international city, to develop Hong Kong's potential as a free and open society."

With files from The Associated Press