John Lee, the Hong Kong government's former No. 2, was selected as the city's next chief executive in an uncontested election Sunday, becoming the first person to secure the top job after rising through the ranks of the police force.
As the sole candidate, Lee received 1,416 votes from the 1,461-member Election Committee, mainly consisting of pro-Beijing members, while eight votes were not in support of Lee, according to the returning officer. The total valid vote count was 1,424.
Lee, known as a security hardliner, will be sworn in for a 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 put in place in 1997 and set to expire in 2047.
In his victory speech, Lee, 64, said, "With loyalty and perseverance, I shall undertake this historic mission and shoulder this responsibility to unite and lead the 7.4 million Hong Kong people to start a new chapter together."
In response to the election result, current Chief Executive Carrie Lam congratulated Lee on his successful election, saying, "We will render all the support needed for the assumption of office by the new term of government."
When Lam was elected in 2017, hundreds of pro-democracy protestors took to the streets to protest the small-circle election.
Even though no demonstrations occurred this time, due mainly to the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020, a few people attempted to voice their dissatisfaction about the election but were quickly silenced by police, according to local media reports.
Lee also mentioned the importance of developing Hong Kong's economy in the victory speech, saying, "We must heighten our sense of urgency and further enhance Hong Kong's overall competitiveness and pursue sustainable development."
But it is uncertain how Lee, who has little experience in business and finance, can take the initiative in revitalizing the Asian financial hub that is still recovering after being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, observers said.
Starting his career as a police officer in 1977, Lee became the undersecretary for security in 2012 and was appointed secretary for security in 2017.
He played a major role in pushing for an extradition bill in 2019 and directed the police response to the large-scale protests against the eventually withdrawn bill.
Lee has defended his uncompromising approach to the protests, calling them "serious attacks" on the government and maintains the police force used "appropriate and effective methods to deal with the difficulties faced by Hong Kong at that time."
During his tenure as the security chief, the Hong Kong government implemented the national security law to crack down on dissent in the city following the 2019 protests.
Under the law, Hong Kong authorities have arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists and media people, accusing them of violating the law. There have been raids on several pro-democracy newspapers, including Apple Daily, which was forced to fold on June 24, 2021.
Following the closure, Lee was promoted to chief secretary for administration, making him second-in-command under Lam, who decided not to seek re-election, citing family reasons.
Following the 2019 protests, the electoral system underwent a Beijing-mandated overhaul in May 2021 to bar anti-China elements from governing Hong Kong. It has since held three elections based on the system.
The appointment of Lee is likely to lead to a further tightening of the government's grip on the city as he pledged last month to enact a previously shelved bill on treason and theft of state secrets that the national security law has not criminalized.
The bill is mandated under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's miniconstitution, which requires the city government to enact laws prohibiting seven offenses, including secession and subversion.
While press freedom in the city has been largely restricted in the wake of the government's crackdown on pro-democracy media last year, Lee said press freedoms still exist and remain protected under the law when asked at a press briefing last month whether he would defend it as the city's next leader, according to a Ming Pao Daily report.
On Sunday, thousands of police officers were reportedly deployed throughout the city to ensure that the election would go smoothly.
Except for the small group of people who attempted to protest, the streets remained calm as citizens showed apathy toward the election.
"It doesn't matter to me at all who joins the election or becomes the chief executive," a 32-year-old office worker said. "Ultimately, they're just executing orders from above."
But there are some citizens optimistic about Lee's upcoming term.
"Lee comes from a security background, so I think he will be tougher, unlike Carrie Lam, who was more laid-back," a housewife in her 60's said. "I also think he is more practical."
Society will also likely become "much stricter," she added, with those who cross the red line of a law even just a little more likely to be arrested.