After many months of speculation we finally have an answer. Hong Kong’s next chief executive – barring a last-minute earthquake – will be John Lee Ka-Chiu. And barring a second earthquake, he will be the only candidate when nominations close at the weekend. So his election on 8 May is assured.
This sequence represents the culmination of a remarkable rise by the former police officer. Lee had joined the force as a probationary inspector in 1977, rising to the rank of Deputy Commissioner. He raised a few eyebrows when he resigned from the police in 2012 after appointment by then chief executive Leung Chun-ying as under-secretary for security. After a full five years in that position Lee was promoted in 2017 by incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to secretary for security.
Lee really came to prominence in 2019 , first through the saga of the extradition bill in the first half of the year, then for his role in tackling the social unrest that scarred the second half, the one feeding directly into the other. Two interesting items of scuttlebutt about him emerged that year: the first was that the idea of riding on the Taiwan murder incident to radically reform extradition laws was entirely the initiative of Lam, who simply instructed her minister to implement it; the second was that Lee offered to resign to take responsibility for the civil disorder that broke out, but Beijing had rejected his resignation.
In early June last year I turned my attention for the first time to the upcoming chief executive election, by then scheduled for just nine months ahead. A number of names were already being floated. Lam clearly wanted a second term. Although reports circulated later that she told Beijing at that time she wished to step down when her term ended, her conduct then and subsequently told a different story. She craved the vindication of re-election to confirm her place in history. Leung was widely reported to be eyeing a comeback, still carrying the disappointment of 2017. Despite Leung’s intellect and Lam’s loyalty, I was not keen on either candidate as from my perspective what Hong Kong needed most urgently was a fresh face.
From within the government, the only senior figure who looked remotely qualified was financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, though he had shown no interest up to that point. Other names being bandied about included exco convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan, DAB leader Starry Lee Wai-king, and former stock exchange chief Charles Li Xiaojia. My conclusion was that Hong Kong and Macau Affairs boss Xia Baolong had a real challenge putting together a credible slate of candidates.
Interestingly, the name of John Lee did not seem to be on anyone’s lips.
The whole applecart was overturned within a fortnight of the column appearing, following the latter’s appointment as chief secretary. That surprise move was intriguing for a number of reasons. It had been known for some time that incumbent Matthew Cheung Kin-chung had been due to retire. Lam had been trying to manoeuvre one of her loyal young ministers into the position. She was quick to see the threat to her ambitions from Lee’s appointment. In introducing him to the media she stressed he would be focused on security issues, everything else would continue to come under her.
Just to spice things up, the financial secretary had begun to do a series of weekend shows on a wide variety of issues which attracted much media coverage on Monday mornings. Suddenly Lam had two rivals from within the house.
When I returned to the subject in a September column, I continued to shunt old faces Leung and Lam to one side, though the latter was pushing herself vigorously . I had to cover this new senior candidate and also provide an update on Chan. For the sake of completeness, I also mentioned Chris Tang (campaigning hard at the time on his own behalf), perennial runner Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and former justice secretary Wong Yan-lung, although I didn’t expect any of them to have a serious chance.
By the spring of this year, Lam was a spent force. The administration’s dismal performance in handling the omicron outbreak left even supporters speechless. Beijing was forced, reluctantly, to intervene directly and president Xi Jinping ordered HKMAO’s Xia to Shenzhen to take charge of the fight against the pandemic. At that point, there was another significant piece of writing on the wall for those with eyes to spot it. Xia formed three committees to cover different aspects of the subject and Lee was nominated as Hong Kong’s liaison officer.
Interestingly, and tellingly, when Lee returned to Hong Kong Lam’s response was to form five committees of her own. As a practical measure this was almost irrelevant, though as an act of political theatre it was suitably dramatic.
And so to the events of last week. We now have an answer to the question we began with. But we also have a wonderful list of new questions. Did Chan run in order to bolster his chances of being financial secretary in the new administration? Did Tang campaign this time but with his real eye on 2027? Are the days of administrative officers as the elite of government finally over? Will they be replaced by staff drawn from disciplined services or outsiders? Has C Y Leung been secretly grooming Lee for a decade?
Lots to ponder, lots to write about. Say what you will about Hong Kong politics, it’s never dull.