John Lee Ka-chiu: The Beijing loyalist

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive believes the controversial National Security Law has ‘restored peace’ and was necessary to guard against ‘undercurrents that try to create troubles’ in the city

Updated - June 02, 2024 07:40 am IST

Published - June 02, 2024 01:57 am IST

Diplomacy for a semi-autonomous city is tricky business. Do you woo investors, dispel democratic anxieties, or crack down on dissent? If you are John Lee Ka-chiu, you do it all, and you do it without mincing words. Last year, during the “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, the city’s Chief Executive was seen gesturing his arms open, welcoming foreign visitors to a “world city like no other”. On the sidelines, he doggedly pursued “street rats”. Mr. Lee issued a bounty of HK$1 million against eight pro-democracy activists living abroad. They were wanted, dead or alive, under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

The eight Mr. Lee referred to are part of the ‘Hong Kong 47’— the 47 activists, academics, and politicians jailed or forced into exile since 2021. On May 30, a Hong Kong court found 14 activists guilty of attempting to “paralyse Hong Kong’s government” and to “topple the city’s leader”. The landmark prosecution is carried out under Mr. Lee’s leadership that began in 2022.

Hong Kong’s fifth Chief Executive has had humble beginnings. He was born into a middle-class family in Guangzhou and grew up in public housing, experiencing “first-hand hardships faced by the grassroots community”, Mr. Lee said in a campaign speech.

He attended the prestigious Wah Yan College run by Jesuit priests. His classmates and teachers described him as “obedient” and “result-oriented”, one who kept a low profile, according to a South China Morning Post report. The young Mr. Lee passed an opportunity to study engineering due to “family reasons”. In 1977, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, Mr. Lee, then 20 years, joined the police force. He was “known as an anglophile during the colonial rule”, Reuters reported earlier.

A policing background separates Mr. Lee from his predecessors, who rose from civil service or had ties to the business community. The 66-year-old spent more than four decades tackling security challenges. He started as a probationary inspector; moving up the ranks to become a deputy commissioner in 2010, a secretary for security in 2017, and by 2021, he was chosen the chief secretary for administration — the second most powerful job in Hong Kong. Mr. Lee had earned a reputation for being “notoriously difficult to deal with” and seemed hostile to those who raised questions, former lawmaker and activist in exile Nathan Law Kwun-chung told CNN.

Mr. Lee’s “sense of justice” began when he was robbed as a school student, which to him was a lesson in being a law-abiding citizen, according to the Global Times. The learning stuck.

When pro-democracy activists protested the controversial (and now withdrawn) extradition Bill in 2019, Mr. Lee defended his former police colleagues, who fired tear gas canisters, water cannons and rubber bullets at protesters. The protesters were “radicals” sowing “terror”, stopped only by the “courageous” police force, he said. Pro-Beijing lawmakers appreciated his “leadership skills” in handling the mass pro-democracy protests and the pandemic

Rewriting rule of law

The Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution, guarantees civil liberties, free speech, and independent judiciary in the former British Colony. The National Security Law rewrites the rule of law, and gives the government more power to crush dissent, critics fear. The U.S. has placed Mr. Lee on a sanctions list for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

In 2022, Mr. Lee was the unopposed choice to be Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, handpicked by an election committee comprising Beijing loyalists. The appointment was a “reward for loyalty”, said Joseph Cheng, a retired Hong Kong academic.

Detractors also point out his lack of expertise in governance which would impact his ability to tackle the city’s housing and poverty issues. Mr. Lee approved new domestic security laws in March this year, an expansion of the NSL, which experts fear could dampen Hong Kong’s prospects of becoming a hub for international business.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executives traditionally juggle opposing forces — balancing Hong Kong’s desire for autonomy alongside China’s vision for the city. Mr. Lee’s governance bends towards the latter; national security would take priority “above all else”, he had said. Mr. Lee’s 2022 manifesto vowed to bolster security legislation, introduce a “national identity” education and enact a “fake news” law. The National Security Law (which prohibits treason, secession, sedition or subversion against Beijing) has “restored peace” and was necessary to guard against “undercurrents that try to create troubles”, he said. When asked about law and order, Mr. Lee, in an interview with China Daily, said the “national security threat is well under control”, with “patriots” like himself administering Hong Kong.

What drives Mr. Lee? He quoted a Cantonese saying during a press meet. “When we draw a cartoon character, we should draw its intestines as well”, he said, suggesting his attention to details while drawing up initiatives. The Chief Executive has earned the sobriquet of the cartoon ‘Pickachu’ on social media. It’s a play on his Cantonese name Ka-Chiu, encoded with the implication of his subservience to Beijing. Mr. Lee reworked a detail to counter this criticism. Marketing flooded online channels with a blue cartoon called ‘Brother Chiu’, an affectionate salutation for a respectable figure in Hong Kong.

This tough line earned him praise from the higher-ups. Last December, China’s President Xi Jinping said Mr. Lee’s work has “consolidated the general trend turning Hong Kong from chaos to order”, and that Hong Kong “now sits on a path to prosperity”.

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