John Lee, chief secretary of Hong Kong and its second-highest ranking official, resigned on April 6 to prepare to stand for the chief executive election in the territory. Lee, a career police officer and former deputy police commissioner, only began his civilian government service in 2012, when he was appointed the undersecretary for security. He became the secretary for security in 2017, in the cabinet of the current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. When he was promoted to the chief secretary role last year, it was the highest government position held by a former police officer in Hong Kong. Should he become Hong Kong’s next chief executive, it will be yet another first.
In all likelihood, Lee will be the next chief executive. After all, under the new and “improved” electoral system of Hong Kong enacted in May 2021, the 1,500-member Election Committee is now completely controlled by “patriots” handpicked by Beijing. Unlike previous chief executive elections, when token competition was permitted by Beijing to give the appearance of an open election process, reports from Hong Kong have suggested that Beijing would back only a single candidate this time: Lee.
The central government’s selection of Lee clearly indicates that it puts a higher priority on security issues over Hong Kong citizens’ livelihood matters, as well as the city’s economy and its status as a global financial center. The message is clear – even though Carrie Lam demonstrated staunch loyalty by following Beijing’s orders in her tumultuous five-year term, that was still not enough. Of course, her chaotic handling of the Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong in recent months has completely ruled her out of the race.
Earlier, Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, was also seen as a potential candidate for chief executive. Chan is perceived to be equally loyal to Beijing, but with a more professional and somewhat more moderate image compared to Lee. Even former Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung, perennially rumored to be eyeing a return to the position as the special administration region’s leader, has more experience in domestic policies and has commented frequently on the economic integration of Hong Kong with the Greater Bay Area, in addition to his hardline rhetoric.
The tacit rejection of these contenders means that either Beijing does not care about Lee’s policy deficiency, or it indeed believes that his being a “blank piece of paper” will mean more malleability, and, hence, is preferred. Neither thought is a comfort for Hong Kong’s citizens or its business community.
With the National Security Law firmly in place after almost two years, it is hard to fathom the possibility of any domestic political unrest or protest being reignited. While Beijing would be concerned about further Western pressure and sanctions involving Hong Kong, any loyal chief executive can equally talk tough in retaliation, and there is precious little more that he or she can do. It would be up to Beijing to handle foreign policy anyway. Installing a figure like Lee at Hong Kong’s top leader would only exacerbate the already tense relations with the West.
On the other hand, in a recent meeting with the National People’s Congress delegates from Hong Kong, Han Zheng, senior vice premier of the State Council and a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, as well as the leader of the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, emphasized Hong Kong’s role as a financial center and its development as an innovation and technology center. Han also expressed his concerns about housing issues. It is hard to reconcile such practical priorities for Hong Kong with Lee’s appointment, however, as he simply does not have any policy exposure in any of these areas.
Indeed, the selection of Hong Kong’s chief executive may just be the latest in a series of policy decisions by Beijing leading to self-inflicted hardship. Beijing appears driven by paranoia over security and absolute state control, with a high dose of insecurity, leading it to ignore all the side effects of its extreme and draconian measures. Of course, this insecurity is hidden under an outward appearance of confidence, much like the often-quoted Mao Zedong thought that “man can conquer nature.”
Outside of Hong Kong policy, China has shown a similarly stubborn adherence to its zero COVID strategy, including the lockdown of Shanghai, and to the crackdown on its technology, education and property sectors, despite an ensuing economic slowdown and growing unemployment. China may have convinced itself that such policies can support its “dual circulation” goal.
However, when the goal becomes the means, China may have backed itself into a corner, forcing the rest of the world to expedite decoupling from China. That precisely defeats the purpose of one half of the dual circulation strategy: external circulation, or economic interactions with the world. Moreover, China’s standing with Russia in the invasion of Ukraine has expedited an outflow of funds in an “unprecedented scale,” further challenging the notion of the mutual dependency between China and the rest of the world.
If the world’s dependence on China decreases, so would China’s leverage on the rest of the world. China’s obsession with its regime security may have been caused by its sense of insecurity. Its regime may end up becoming less secure, and our world more unstable.