HONG KONG — When hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets in 2019 to protest a proposed extradition bill, John Lee, the security secretary at the time, went before the city’s Legislative Council to defend the government’s position.
During the session, Mr. Lee, a former police officer, was questioned about the excessive use of force and tear gas on protesters by the police. Combative lawmakers shouted “down with John Lee!” One accused him of trying to “sell out Hong Kong for personal gains” in his dogged pursuit of a bill that would force some people to face trial in mainland China.
Mr. Lee, who spent decades in the police and security bureau, stuck to his talking points. And now he is set to become Hong Kong’s new chief executive in a rubber-stamp election held on Sunday. More than half of the nearly 1,500 people authorized to cast ballots have already backed him, guaranteeing a victory. All dissent in the legislature has been silenced.
In choosing Mr. Lee, who is running unopposed, China has cemented Hong Kong’s transition from a semiautonomous territory into a city that is run much more like the rest of the authoritarian mainland, where social stability comes above all else. After years of mass protest and civil unrest, Beijing has found a loyal agent to secure its grip over the city.
“Lee will have a vested interest in sustaining a hard-line approach to dissent in Hong Kong in the coming few years, as the entire raison d’être of his appointment as chief is to keep Hong Kong in line with Beijing’s requirements,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
“Whether this will be good for Hong Kong is, of course, a different matter,” he said.
In a 44-page manifesto released last week, Mr. Lee said his priority would be to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, prohibiting acts of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against Beijing. Successive chief executives have tried to do so and failed after being met with fierce opposition.
But Mr. Lee, 64, has a reputation for getting things done.
As security secretary, he oversaw an aggressive crackdown against the protests, wielding a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing to silence pro-democracy demonstrations and force opposition figures into prison or exile. He froze the assets of Jimmy Lai, the outspoken publishing tycoon, contributing to the fall of Apple Daily. When dozens of lawmakers were arrested last year over their campaign promise to block the government’s agenda in the legislature, Mr. Lee said they threatened to turn Hong Kong into a “bottomless abyss.”
Staid and serious, Mr. Lee often appears more at ease in the background, quietly working the bureaucracy, than in the spotlight. His strictly controlled campaign has been run with similar restraint.
He has taken only a few questions from the news media, and when he does, he usually takes notes. When he met with families in the city’s notoriously cramped apartments last month, it was behind closed doors, with police officers outside to keep reporters out.
Pressing the flesh, even by the tightly scripted standards of this selection process, does not come naturally to Mr. Lee, who sometimes pauses when speaking to the public and sometimes stumbles over his words.
Carrie Lam, the current chief executive, who appeared to relish debate, has been called pugnacious and quick-witted by her colleagues. Mr. Lee, in many ways, is her foil.
“He’s not the type that would speak a lot,” said Ted Hui, a former opposition lawmaker who fled overseas while facing several criminal cases for protesting. “Most of the time he was more like a machine, reading scripts. He has a cold face and hardly shows any emotion.”
Mr. Lee joined the police at age 19 after a childhood encounter with local street toughs instilled in him a sense of law and order, he once recounted.
As he rose through the ranks, Mr. Lee, who did not respond to interview requests, handled some of Hong Kong’s biggest criminal cases, including the pursuit of Cheung Tze-keung, a gangster known as “Big Spender” who kidnapped and ransomed members of the Hong Kong elite in the 1990s.
Officers from the police force’s organized crime bureau, which was then run by Mr. Lee, raided Mr. Cheung’s hide-out and confiscated 800 kilograms of explosives in 1998. The gangster escaped to mainland China, but was soon arrested and executed after a brief trial.
“As members of the gang were notoriously reckless and impulsive, we had to be extremely careful in planning and executing every detail of the operation,” Mr. Lee later recalled in a newsletter for Hong Kong’s Civil Service Bureau.
The success of his early career deepened Mr. Lee’s contacts within the mainland security services, leading to regular visits to police departments around China. That continued after he joined the leadership of the security bureau, which oversees the police.
In early 2019, he visited Xinjiang, the northwestern region of China where the authorities have carried out a brutal crackdown against Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim minority groups. Mr. Lee told lawmakers that the trip offered potential lessons for Hong Kong’s antiterrorism strategy.
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The extradition proposal, which had been crafted by Mr. Lee, was made public that same year. In defending the bill, Mr. Lee said it would “block loopholes in the overall system of cooperation on criminal justice.” The city exploded in protests.
Once Beijing authorized the sweeping national security law, dissent from lawmakers and residents was aggressively targeted by the police, and Mr. Lee adopted a firmer tone as the authorities arrested dozens of activists and opposition politicians.
His success against the protests earned him more plaudits from the Communist Party. Mr. Lee and other senior officials were later hit with sanctions by the United States after the crackdown. YouTube recently blocked his campaign channel in order to comply with the sanctions. And as part of a broader diplomatic tit-for-tat, the American consul general has had limited access to top Hong Kong officials, including Mr. Lee.
That isolation has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, with harsh virus restrictions damaging the city’s reputation as a global financial hub.
Paul Chan, the financial secretary, had been considered a possible replacement for Mrs. Lam, but Communist Party officials decided against a more business-minded leader in the city. “We need at least five more years of security and law enforcement to maintain a high degree of law and order,” said Michael Tien, a National People’s Congress deputy and a member of the Election Committee in Hong Kong.
That helped clear the way for Mr. Lee.
Some business leaders have expressed cautious optimism that Mr. Lee will lead Hong Kong through a successful pandemic recovery. Last summer, he listened as representatives from several global companies with headquarters in Hong Kong described the challenges of hiring and retaining foreign employees after more than a year of restrictions. Businesses threatened to leave the city. Many expatriates had temporarily relocated.
Mr. Lee promised to see what he could do, said Frederik Gollob, the chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce, who was at the meeting. In August, the government eased a requirement that all residents returning to the city spend 21 days in a hotel quarantine.
“It produced a concrete result,” Mr. Gollob said.
But days after the restrictions were lifted, the government tightened them again, prompting strongly worded letters from businesses and financial groups. Many attributed the reversal to Beijing’s intervention.
Those interventions are expected to continue under Mr. Lee’s watch, as China looks to stamp out any embers of resistance in Hong Kong.
Days before the election, Mr. Lee attended a televised forum that once featured lively debate between candidates up for chief executive. He had the stage all to himself. “It is not easy,” he said in mid-April, referring to his campaign. “I have been working very hard to explain to various members what my election platform will be like.”
Even a one-man race takes effort.