John Lee: The Final Blow to Hong Kong’s Fragile Democracy

The death of democracy in Hong Kong seemed to arrive on May 8, 2022, when John Lee, a Beijing hardliner and former Secretary of Security, was elected to be the next Hong Kong Chief Executive. His election demonstrates that even the veneer of democracy, which is so often presented by Hong Kong during election season, has been wiped away. Where in the 2017 election only 0.03 percent of the populace was able to vote on who would obtain the role of Chief Executive, that practice has now gone out the door and instead blatant authoritarianism has been allowed to take hold.

Lee is far from well-liked within Hong Kong. According to the BBC, he garnered a score of 34.8 on a 100 point scale when ranked by Hong Kong citizens. He has never held a political office outside the security sector before: his only prior political experience was his work for the Security Bureau of Hong Kong. Lee supported the passing of an extradition bill in 2019 which allowed Hong Kong citizens to be sent to mainland China to be tried for crimes. He now wants to enact legislation which would “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion.” Further, Lee is a Beijing loyalist who was instrumental in the governmental suppression of Hong Kong protestors between 2019 and 2020. He is remembered by the people of Hong Kong for his role in cracking down on his own citizens, as having quelled protests that were supported by 60 percent of Hong Kong citizens. 

Thus, it would seem obvious that his election would be impossible in a region given that he has so little support from its citizens; however, there were no other candidates in the running. The election committee, which had already been specifically handpicked by Beijing, had two choices: elect Lee or vote against his election. Only eight people out of 1424 chose to vote against Lee, leading him to win with 99.4 percent of the vote. For context, 17 percent of Hong Kong’s population supports independence. If this council even somewhat reflected the desires of Hong Kong’s citizens, then at least 240 people on the election council, and likely many more, should have voted against Lee. Lee’s election, therefore, was not the general wish of the Hong Kong people. 

This was only the latest step in a continuous trend of Beijing stripping Hong Kong of its Western identity. In 2020, Hong Kong passed a national security law, which deeming illegal advocacy for independence from China, as well as requiring internet service providers and hosting services to block, remove, or restrict content if it was considered secessionist by the Hong Kong government. Media freedom as a whole has been highly restricted in the past eight years. Hong Kong went from ranked 80 out of 180 in the world in the press freedom ranking in 2021 to being ranked 148th in the world—a score only slightly higher than Russia’s 155th—this year. 

Hong Kong’s quick transition to authoritarianism poses an example to the wider world on how fickle democracy can be if it is not actively protected. Lee will take office on July 1, and from then on, his actions will determine Hong Kong’s future. It seems likely that he will continue to work with Chinese authorities to ensure that Hong Kong remains stable via authoritarian measures, and will do everything in his power to end secessionist movements. What is left of democracy in Hong Kong is on its deathbed, and Lee’s leadership likely will act to strangle what remains.

By William Buehler

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