Lee, 64, was the only candidate in the Beijing-backed race to succeed the outgoing leader, Carrie Lam. Like his predecessor, Lee was among the first Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials to be put on the US sanctions list for their role in undermining the city’s once-guaranteed rights and freedoms. Last month, his YouTube channel was blocked by Google to comply with the sanctions.
Analysts say his elevation signals that Beijing’s tough policy on Hong Kong is set to continue. It is also the first time that a former security official has been appointed to the top job in one of Asia’s most significant business hubs.
Hong Kong became the attention of the world’s media in 2019 for its months-long street protests, the biggest since its handover to China from Britain in 1997. Beijing imposed a controversial national security legislation in the city the following year, which bars secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
The Hong Kong administration’s debilitating pandemic controls have invited complaints from both residents and foreign businesses in recent months. Several foreign chambers of commerce warned the city of the damage of the zero-Covid policy.
Lee’s new position was confirmed after being chosen by an “election committee” made up of 1,461 people, roughly 0.02% of the city’s 7.4 million population. Critics say the committee does not represent the wide range of views in Hong Kong, and that its members are mostly pro-Beijing.
After a brief secret ballot on Sunday, 99% or 1,416 members voted for Lee while eight voted against, according to officials.
Beijing hailed the near-unanimous result, saying it showed that “Hong Kong society has a high level of recognition and approval” for Lee. “This is a real demonstration of democratic spirit,” the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said in a statement.
Under the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, Beijing is remoulding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image after huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago. Dissenting voices have almost disappeared after last year’s electoral changes that allowed only “patriots” to take part in legislature polls.
Street protests have been largely outlawed, and authorities have used an anti-Covid ban on public gatherings of more than four people as well as the security law to do so.
Despite the risks, the League of Social Democrats – one of the only remaining pro-democracy groups – held a three-person protest before the polls opened Sunday, chanting: “Power to the people, universal suffrage now.”
“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like – a shrinking of our civil liberties,” said protester Vanessa Chan as dozens of police officers looked on. “We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to be completely silent.”
Hong Kong’s chief executives have found themselves caught between the democratic aspirations of the city’s residents and the authoritarian demands of Beijing’s leaders for years, and Lam is on track to leave office with record-low approval ratings.
Lee’s challenge in governing the once-freewheeling society is not merely political. Hong Kong also faces economic difficulties thanks to two years of strict pandemic curbs that have damaged its reputation as a business hub and left residents cut off as rivals reopen.
Under the slogan “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together”, Lee has vowed to bring in “results-oriented” governance, forge unity and reboot the city’s economy.
A 44-page manifesto he released last week stuck to broad goals and offered few concrete policies or targets. He has said he will unveil more details when he makes his first policy address.
According to a survey in March by the Public Opinion Research Institute, about 24% of the public has confidence in Lee, compared with 12% for Lam.
Queuing outside a restaurant on Sunday, Alex Tam, 25, said he and his friends were paying little attention to proceedings. “It’s just an empty gesture,” he said. “If he didn’t listen to the protesters, I don’t see how he would listen to young people now, especially those who criticise the government.”
Yeung wing-shun, a retired businessman, was more positive, saying he hoped Lee would guide Hong Kong with a firm hand and that he believed the new leader could bring different sectors together.
Lee will take office on 1 July, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from Britain.
China agreed at the time that Hong Kong could maintain certain freedoms and autonomy for 50 years after retaking control from Britain under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Beijing and Lee insist the formula is still intact. Critics, including many western powers, say it has been shredded.