A pro-Beijing former security chief has been chosen as Hong Kong’s next leader prompting concerns about the future of civil liberties on the island.
John Lee, who led the crackdown on pro-democracy activists back in 2019, was elected through a closed voting process which the New York Times described as a “rubber-stamp election.” He was the only candidate on the ballot and his selection is seen as another move for the Chinese Communist Party to assert its control over the jurisdiction.
“I look forward to all of us starting a new chapter together, building a Hong Kong that is caring, open and vibrant, and a Hong Kong that is full of opportunities and harmony,” Lee said after he had been declared the winner.
Lee was chosen by a committee of 1,500 people who were subject to screening from the mainland Chinese government. He earned 99% of the committee’s vote and will take over from outgoing leader Carrie Lam.
The transfer of power comes as dissenting political voices are eliminated from Hong Kong politics, and only “patriots” loyal to the central government are now eligible to hold office, according to the Associated Press.
Joseph Borrel, the European Union’s foreign policy head, stated that Lee’s victory “violates democratic principles and political pluralism in Hong Kong.”
Lee supported Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill in 2019 which opponents said would give China the ability to target government critics and spurred widespread protests on the island. Lee was sanctioned by the U.S. for a sometimes forceful response to protesters while he said he was working “to safeguard security.”
The former Hong Kong security chief has also pledged to purge “the ideology of Hong Kong independence, violence and extremism.”
“Choosing [Lee] signals that the Chinese Communist Party is not confident about security in Hong Kong. It also lets us know that the central government continues to distrust the Hong Kong government and people,” John Burns noted in a column for the Hong Kong Free Press.
Other critics have pointed to fewer “checks and balances” in the Hong Kong government and decreasing political liberties.
“In the legislature and the election committee, there is almost no political opposition and the political spectrum is concentrated towards the pro-establishment camp,” said Ivan Choy, a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
One pro-democracy group, the League of Social Democrats, protested at the polls expressing concern over the future of freedom in Hong Kong.
“This is what John Lee’s new chapter looks like, a shrinking of our civil liberties,” protester Vanessa Chan said, according to the BBC. “We know this action will have no effect, but we don’t want Hong Kong to be completely silent.”