HONG kONG IS marking the halfway point of its 50-year one country, two systems governance with a two-day visit by President Xi Jinping to swear in the city’s new chief executive John Lee (seen above) on July 1, also the anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty from the United Kingdom.
Xi’s visit has been wrapped in extensive secrecy, security and Covid protections. It is his first visit outside the mainland since the pandemic began.
He reportedly spent the first night back across the border in Shenzhen and all Hong Kong politicians he is meeting went into quarantine ahead of the visit.
Xi made mention of one country, two systems on his arrival but the overarching theme of the visit is a ‘new era of stability’.
That presages further suppression of dissent, even if Hong Kong remains freer than anywhere else in China.
JOHN LEE HAS been formally elected as Hong Kong’s chief executive. To no one’s surprise. Former chief executive Carrie Lam’s number two was the only candidate before an appointed electorate of 1,500 Beijing loyalists.
Lee has neither the civil service nor the business background of his predecessors in the job. The 64-year old former policeman has risen through the ranks of the police and security apparatus. His choice as leader of the city reflects Beijing’s growing prioritisation of stability and security that is far from limited to Hong Kong.
In 2019, Lee was instrumental as Lam’s Secretary of Security in promoting the ill-fated bill allowing extradition to China that sparked the street demonstrations. He defended heavy-handed police suppression of the protests, saying force was necessary against what he called terrorists and extremists.
He was also responsible for implementing the 2020 National Security Law that gave China sweeping powers over Hong Kong and brought its security regime more in line with the mainland.
How Lee applies the law as chief executive once he takes up the post on July 1 will likely define his term of office. Like all Chinese law, Hong Kong’s National Security Law is broad. Its scope is sketchily defined and retroactive. This allows administrative flexibility but also creates murkiness and uncertainty. Case law that might give clarity is limited.
A national security court allows for a parallel judicial system. That can leave the city’s civil and commercial courts operating independently on principles of British common law but still allows a means of political control over any case where China considers it has a national interest at stake.
The integrity of the legal system is vital for international business confidence in the city. However, the long-term risk is that the city evolves with a generation of lawyers not schooled in the principles of common law but viewing the legal system as an instrument of state administration, who become increasingly influential across the whole legal system.
Lee is likely to extend the Beijing model of national security law by introducing legislation that will give Hong Kong similar cybersecurity, data and privacy and anti-sanctions law to that now in force in the mainland.
These could be separate or part of an enacted Article 23 of the Basic Law, a stated goal for Lee.
The article provides for Hong Kong to write its own laws to prohibit the quartet of treason, secession, sedition and subversion that are already the target of the National Security Law (introduced under Article 18, not 23), as well as theft of state secrets (always a catch-all term in Chinese law) and prohibition of Hong Kong political organisations having foreign ties.
The two previous attempts to enact Article 23, in 2003 and 2019, led to intense street protests that are no longer permissible.
Beijing is convinced that business does not care about democracy in Hong Kong; it just wants stability. That may be true of the local business elite that Lee has taken onto an advisory council he has formed. However, the continuing slow drip of departures of international business executives, regardless of Hong Kong’s locational advantages, would tell a different story.
International businesses also have to worry about getting ensnared in Western sanctions against China as stances in Washington and Brussels harden towards Beijing.
For its part, Beijing may be less concerned by that than many in the West imagine. Increasingly, it sees Hong Kong less as a gateway through which international capital can enter China and more as one through which Chinese capital can make its way into the world.
That would be a fundamental change of purpose for Hong Kong, albeit not the first time the city has had to adapt to a new role in changed circumstances. More international companies, like HSBC, would come under stakeholder pressure to spin off their Hong Kong and China operations from the rest of their business.
CARRIE LAM’S ANNOUNCEMENT that she will not seek a second term as Hong Kong’s chief executive comes as little surprise.
Her assertion that she informed Beijing of her intention a year ago may be an effort to deflect the jumped-or-pushed question. Yet, as this Bystander noted when the 64-year old Lam added a few tearful words to the conclusion of her annual policy speech last October, it seemed clear then that there would be no second term.
She will leave office on June 30, having recorded the lowest public approval rating for the officeholder since London handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and as the city emerges from the worst Covid-19 outbreak in China.
Of course, public popularity matters little for candidates for chief executive as a committee of pro-Beijing electors fills the position.
Lam has overseen what history will likely regard as a pivotal period of national security legislation to clamp down on dissent as Beijing tightened its grip on the city’s affairs and systematically dismantled organised opposition to its control.
In 2019, Lam sparked months of anger and discontent by proposing a law to allow extraditions to mainland China. That had to be withdrawn in the face of street protests, but the controversial National Security law followed in 2020, effectively ending Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.
The election of her successor on May 8 will be the first conducted under last year’s sweeping electoral reforms. These gave local authorities greater powers to vet candidates and ensure that only ‘patriots’ could stand in elections. They also require a loyalty oath from all Hong Kong elected officials, from local councillors to legislators, to screen out pro-democracy candidates.
Lam’s number two, Chief Secretary John Lee, appears to be Beijing’s choice as her successor. Lee, a former deputy police commissioner, was a security official during the 2019 protests and was elevated to the top leadership ranks last year, now seemingly in preparation for taking over.
His appointment would signal Beijing’s intention to sharpen its focus on security and tighter control of Hong Kong’s governance, but with a veneer of competence that was absent in Lam’s ill-starred term.