How John Lee Became the Sole Candidate for Hong Kong’s 2022 Chief Executive Race: An ongoing retrospective

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From resigning as Chief Secretary to knocking out other likely contenders, here’s a recap of the security hardliner’s road to becoming Hong Kong’s next leader, and the challenges he might face in the future.

Featured image: John Lee and Tam Yiu-Chung. Image via Tang Huiyun, VOA Chinese

After months-long speculation over who within the government’s inner circle would emerge as potential candidates to replace Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the now former Chief of Administration and Security Chief, John Lee, stands unopposed as the only high-profile official to have thrown his hat into the ring in the run-up to the city’s small-circle Chief Executive election, scheduled for 8 May.

Lee, a career police officer turned hardline security official, is reportedly the only Chief Executive hopeful favoured with Beijing’s blessing – meaning that Hong Kong is now left with just one candidate for the first time since former Chief Executive Donald Tsang was elected unopposed back in 2005.

The 64-year-old has garnered 786 nominations from the 1,500-member Election Committee as of April 13, surpassing the 751 threshold of support needed to secure victory – effectively confirming he’ll become Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive.

But how exactly did Lee establish himself as the only validly nominated candidate in a revamped, “patriots only” political landscape dominated by Beijing loyalists? From his resignation as the second-highest ranking government official to knocking out other likely contenders before even joining the race, here’s a recap of Lee’s road to becoming the lone candidate for Hong Kong’s next leader.

Who is John Lee?

Lee spent decades in Hong Kong’s police force, serving as a probationary inspector in 1977 after forfeiting to study engineering at the University of Hong Kong, citing “family reasons”. He rose through the ranks to become chief superintendent in 1997, assistant commissioner in 2003, and deputy commissioner in 2010.

In 2012, Lee entered administration when he was appointed as Undersecretary for Security by then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and was later promoted to Secretary for Security when Carrie Lam took office in 2017.

Lee’s tenure as Security Secretary saw him play a crucial role in pushing for the controversial extradition bill in 2019, which triggered one of the city’s most tumultuous  political and social unrest in decades, as well as the enactment of the Beijing-imposed national security law in June 2020. During a major cabinet reshuffle in June 2021, Lee was given an unprecedented promotion to Chief Secretary for Administration – the second highest position in Hong Kong, next only to the Chief Executive herself.

Image via Asia News Daily

“The violent riots that took place in Hong Kong in 2019 had the more profound consequences of ruining people’s law-abidingness and breeding homegrown terrorism,” Lee wrote in his first blog post following his promotion to Chief Secretary, adding such acts stem from “the incitement of hatred, discord, and division.”     

Your New Conductor: Lee Resigns as Chief Secretary

According to the Basic Law, one cannot run for Chief Executive while having another job. So amid circulating online reports that he would soon declare his candidacy, Lee on 6 April officially tendered his resignation as Chief Secretary – three days after the nomination period began on 3 April. 

On the same day, Lee held a press conference in both Chinese and English, officially announcing his bid for the Chief Executive position. The conference took only five minutes, and no questions from reporters were taken.

“If my resignation is approved by the central government, I shall plan to prepare to stand in the upcoming Chief Executive election,” Lee said during his conference.  

Chief Executive Carrie Lam soon announced that her office confirmed Lee’s resignation, with Beijing approving the move just two days later. Lee “proceed[ed] on leave with immediate effect”. He was no longer an administrator, but in the lead for the most powerful position in Hong Kong. 

Just one day after, Lee unveiled his campaign slogan: “Starting a New Chapter for Hong Kong Together”. He vowed to lead the city by using a ‘result-oriented governance’ approach, focusing on resolving social issues while maintaining Hong Kong’s competitiveness on the international stage.

Image via Kyodo News

He also indicated that reviving Article 23, the long-shelved anti-subversion bill that caused widespread backlash in 2003, will be a “top priority” for his administration.

In poetic fashion, Lee referred to the next five years as a “new symphony” for Hong Kong, with him at the helm as the “conductor”.

“This new chapter will be a new symphony. Being the conductor, each member will leverage his or her strengths to create the synergy effect,” he noted in his speech. 

“Together, we will play a splendid new piece for Hong Kong.”

Knocking out other un(likely) Contenders

As the opening for the 3 April nomination period drew closer, speculation quickly mounted over potential candidates. When Carrie Lam officially announced her intention to not seek a second term, big names like finance chief Paul Chan, New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip, and even ex-leader Leung Chun-ying began to surface. 

Local film producer Checkley Sin, who in January was the first to announce a bid for Chief Executive, was the only ‘official’ candidate to have stepped forward. 

Other candidates included Lai Hung-mui, a Chinese sword-wielding former security guard who ran on a platform of HK$2,000 monthly consumption vouchers and scrapping public examinations, and Wu Sai-chuen, a former member of the Democratic Association for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), and a veteran of the elections that took part in three prior CE elections, running on a platform of giving 98 percent mortgage rates to teenagers. 

But by the end of the 13-day nomination period, Lee remained the only nominee to have gotten enough nominations from the Electoral Committee to officially submit a bid – essentially knocking out every other rumoured candidate-to-be.  

Regina Ip, leader of the New People’s Party, long considered a potential contender for the top job, and a ‘friendly’ rival of Carrie Lam during her tenure, announced on 8 April that she had “thought about” running but ultimately decided not to due to “current circumstances”. The 71-year-old politician noted that because of her age, she will not be running in future elections either. 

Regina Ip and other NPP members. Image via Iris Tong, VOA Chinese

Checkley Sin similarly withdrew his want for the position, saying that although he was confident in his ability to garner enough nominations, he did not want to become “entangled” in the elections while Lee was the “better man” for the job. 

But even without competition (or a manifesto), the path to being Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive will not be easy for Lee. On 20 April, YouTube shut down John Lee’s official campaign channel in accordance with sanctions against Lee from the US government. Lee responded that these “bullying” and “unreasonable acts only convince me that what I’m doing is right”. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, have stated they will allow Lee to continue using their services, but any paid advertising will be withheld. 

Running without a Manifesto 

With Lee all but set to claim victory in the one-horse leadership race, all eyes now turn to his vision for Hong Kong’s future post COVID-19. Since declaring his candidacy, Lee has yet to publish an election manifesto outlining his administration’s policies and aims for the city – although he did reassure during a media briefing on 18 April that he was “working hard” to complete it as soon as possible. 

Lee’s campaign chief, Tam Yiu-chung, earlier noted that while there may be “little time” for Hongkongers to read through Lee’s manifesto once revealed, he insisted people can nevertheless support the former Chief of Administration’s bid for the top job – saying a manifesto is “not key” for people to support him.       

With the election now just two weeks away, Lee’s campaign team on Sunday said it will work round-the-clock to launch his online election platform by Friday.

Lee’s work-in-progress manifesto, meanwhile, will focus on areas such as housing, elderly care, and civil service reform, with less emphasis on national security in a bid to ‘soften’ his hardline image and regain public trust, a challenge that current Carrie Lam, with an only 33.4% approval rating as of April 2022, has shown is far easier said than done. 

Additional reporting by Cyril Ma

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