Thursday, February 29, 2024

Former Hong Kong security chief resigns ahead of leadership bid

Former Hong Kong security chief resigns ahead of leadership bid
April 6, 2022 AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - A hardline former Hong Kong security chief sanctioned by the US for his role in China's campaign against dissent resigned on Wednesday, kickstarting his expected bid to become the city's next leader.

John Lee, who oversaw the police response to huge democracy protests three years ago and its subsequent crackdown, will go on leave with immediate effect, according to a government press release.

Lee, 64, has been widely tipped by local media and government loyalists in recent days as Beijing's top choice for the role.

Hong Kong's leader is not popularly elected, the source of years of democracy protests that have been comprehensively squashed in the last two years.

The new chief executive will be chosen by a committee of 1,500 Beijing loyalists on May 8, a process that is choreographed behind the scenes by Chinese officials through Beijing's Liaison Office.

Current leader Carrie Lam announced Monday she would not seek a second five-year term, firing the starting gun on the race to replace her.

Lee rose through the ranks of the police before heading up the Security Bureau until he was last year made the city's number two leader -- often perceived as a springboard to the top job.

As a cabinet minister, his resignation will need to be approved by Beijing, a symbolic step that would double as him receiving China's blessing to run.

Only those who get the nod from Beijing have any hope of standing and then securing a majority of votes in the 1,500-strong Election Committee, whose members are vetted for their political loyalty.

Local media reported that Beijing's Liaison Office summoned dozens of Election Committee members on Wednesday morning for meetings to discuss the leadership race.

Like Lam, Lee was among 11 Hong Kong and Chinese officials sanctioned by the United States in 2020 for "undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly".

Selection, not an election:

Democracy supporters and government critics have often mocked Lee with the nickname "Pikachu", a pun on his full Chinese name Lee Ka-chiu.

During the huge 2019 democracy rallies it was not unusual to see protesters carrying stuffed toys of the cute Pokemon character.

Former opposition lawmaker Nathan Law, who now resides in Britain, described Lee as "even more hawkish and hostile to democratic pursuit" than his predecessors.

"This is a 'selection' process rather than an 'election' process," activist Law told AFP.

"Beijing determines who to be the next leader of Hong Kong, rather than the people of Hong Kong."

Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said a Lee administration would reflect Beijing's desire for "loyalty, discipline and national security".

"If (Lee) becomes the next chief executive, it means that national security concerns would override the other concerns in the future five years of Hong Kong," Choy said.

The nomination period for the leadership race began on Sunday and will last until April 16, with the selection scheduled for May 8.

Lee has received the public endorsements from establishment figures such as pro-Beijing heavyweight Rita Fan and Bernard Chan, convener of Lam's Executive Council.

Aside from Lee, Hong Kong's finance chief Paul Chan has also been tipped by the local press as a likely contender although he has yet to declare his intentions.

Citing sources familiar with the Liaison Office meetings, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing wants a one horse race, with no one else running against Lee.

Hong Kong's new leader will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of the city's handover by Britain to China.