The Hong Kong government's former No. 2, John Lee, has all but won the city's leadership election slated for May 8 after securing nominations by a majority of the Election Committee members who will cast votes, with no other candidates in the running.
Lee, a security hard-liner and the candidate favored by Beijing, is expected to govern the city under further tightened control as he pledged to enact a previously shelved bill on treason and theft of state secrets that have not been criminalized by a national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.
The avid proponent of the law, which has been enforced to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong following an anti-government movement in 2019, tendered his resignation as chief secretary for administration, the second highest post, on April 6 to run in the election.
His resignation was approved by China's State Council a day later, a quick turnaround seen as a sign of Beijing's strong support for Lee's bid.
As Lee received 786 nominations from the 1,454-member Election Committee mainly consisting of pro-Beijing members, he is seen to win the election and to become the first Hong Kong leader to rise through the ranks of the police forces.
Prior to becoming second-in-command, Lee served as secretary for security during a crackdown on pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which folded on June 24, 2021. A day after the paper's closure, Lee was promoted to the No. 2 post.
The 64-year-old also directed the police response to large-scale protests during the 2019 anti-government movement as the top security official.
Some pro-democracy activists and analysts speculate that Beijing's backing of Lee signifies further tightening of China's grip on the territory alongside a shift into prioritizing national security above all else.
"Hong Kong has been a police state for two years," Samuel Bickett, a U.S. lawyer and expat Hong Konger who was deported earlier this year for allegedly assaulting a police officer, said on Twitter:
"John Lee, not Carrie Lam, has been the supreme power in that police state at least since he became chief secretary in June 2021. His elevation is expected. We can presumably expect more of the same, not a major change in policy," he said.
Kenneth Chan, associate professor of department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Kyodo News that current leader Carrie Lam "has inflicted fatal blows to the city," namely the enforcement of the national security law and arrests of pro-democracy activists and media people as well as a Beijing-imposed overhaul of the electoral system to ensure that only "patriots" govern the city.
"Lee would carry out the "Mainlandization" that she has embarked on in the second half of her term, in a fashion that is more aggressive and radical," he said.
Among Lee's list of priorities as next leader is the bill on treason and theft of state secrets as he told reporters earlier this month.
The bill has been called for under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's miniconstitution, which requires the city government to enact laws prohibiting seven offenses, including secession, subversion, treason and theft of state secrets.
The national security law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces, but not treason or theft of state secrets.
Article 23 also calls for prohibiting foreign political organizations from conducting activities in Hong Kong and prohibits local political organizations from establishing ties with such foreign groups.
Lee called the enactment of the legislation based on Article 23 a "constitutional duty," adding that it would bring stability, according to local media reports.
However, Chan says that concentrating on the legislation is what Lee must do to "show Beijing he is the right man in the job."
"One cannot rule out the widening and deepening of the assault on the core values of Hong Kong" such as freedom, human rights and democracy, Chan added.
While the former policeman's disciplinary background could contribute to enhanced security in the territory, Lee's candidacy has also brought up concerns regarding the future of Hong Kong's economy.
In response to questions regarding his lack of experience in business and financial affairs, Lee said that "there is no person who is a know-all for everything," pledging to form a team with experienced officials to work on economic policies.
The city was once promised a high degree of autonomy with "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong," with the ultimate goal of achieving full universal suffrage under the Basic Law.
The May 8 election, however, will have only one candidate for the next leader, who will be voted by the Election Committee, a panel whose members were vetted by Lee himself as chairman of the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee until he resigned from the government.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Lee will be sworn into his five-year term on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China and the halfway point of Beijing's "one country, two systems" policy which was put in place in 1997 and was set to last for 50 years until 2047.
In 2017, Lam's emergence as the new leader with 777 votes of the then 1,194-member Election Committee created an uproar as hundreds of pro-democracy protestors took to the streets to protest the small-circle election.
Her successor, however, is unlikely to be met with the same fanfare.
With the enactment of the national security law that threatens a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, the streets of Hong Kong are expected to remain quiet as it transitions into Lee's security-driven leadership, which Chan says would facilitate Beijing's comprehensive control over the territory.
"(Lee) is not asked or expected to think and act autonomously for Hong Kong," Chan says. "The city's economy and decisions will be decided in accordance with Beijing's priorities and demands."