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John Lee, a Beijing loyalist, is elected Hong Kong's next leader


There will soon be a new leader in Hong Kong. Over the weekend, an election committee picked the city's former No. 2 official, John Lee, to be its next chief executive. The outcome wasn't exactly a surprise. Lee was the only candidate on the ballot. He'll take up the post in July as the city marks the 25th anniversary of its return to China from Britain. NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is on the line with us. John, so tell us about John Lee. Who is John Lee?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah, well, most of his career, he was a cop. He's a veteran of the Hong Kong Police Force who rose up through the ranks and became the top security official for the territory in 2017. So he was in that role at a turning point for Hong Kong in 2019, when there were large and, at times, violent protests across the city over a controversial extradition law. He led government efforts to put down those protests. And since then, he's been driving - he's been a driving force in the implementation of a national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. And for his efforts, he was promoted last year to become chief secretary, the No. 2 to Carrie Lam, who's the current leader of Hong Kong.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So now he's going to be the next chief executive. What does that signify?

RUWITCH: Well, Lee's clearly a security guy through and through. Some have labeled him a hard-liner. You know, he oversaw the arrests of dozens of opposition politicians under the national security law and the closure of media outlets critical of the government. I asked John Burns about this all. He's a professor emeritus of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

JOHN BURNS: I expect that there will be a continued, very strong emphasis on security and continue to weaponize the law to suppress and punish dissent.

RUWITCH: Now, the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing say the national security law isn't there to suppress dissent. Instead, you know, it's there to restore stability in Hong Kong to ensure its prosperity. It's interesting, though. You know, previous chief executives in Hong Kong - there have been four - they were bureaucrats or businessmen. So Beijing's trying something new this time around.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So you think it'll work? I mean, what are John Lee's biggest challenges?

RUWITCH: Well, he inherits a city divided in some ways. Trust in the government is very low here, according to polls. The outgoing chief executive with whom he is closely associated will likely leave office with the lowest ratings of any chief executive since Britain gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997. So there's a bit of a wall to climb there. Legitimacy may also be an issue for him. He got over 99% of the vote, but that's in an election committee with less than 2,000 people that's stacked with Beijing loyalists. Most of Hong Kong's 7.4 million people had no say in the matter.

You know, though, I suspect a lot of people in Hong Kong are just getting on with life and sort of hoping for the best from him. A producer working for NPR spoke to a 28-year-old woman on the street in Hong Kong yesterday. Her surname is Yung (ph), and she said she really had no strong opinions about Lee but was hopeful that he would do some good for the city.

YUNG: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: So she says that Lee has a lot to tackle, and it would really be best if he focused on livelihood issues, unemployment in particular. So she's in wait-and-see mode. You know, the economy has really suffered a lot during the pandemic, so he's got a lot of challenges.

MARTÍNEZ: And one more thing. Hong Kong's supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from the mainland until at least the year 2047. We're halfway there. So is one country, two systems dead maybe?

RUWITCH: You know, at the end of the day, Hong Kong still does have a lot of autonomy. But Beijing's grip over the politics of the place has really tightened a lot over the past two years. And, you know, John Lee's appointment as the next chief executive seems to highlight that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. John, thanks a lot.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.