John Lee has been chosen as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive. The former security chief, who led the violent crackdown on 2019 pro-democracy protests and the subsequent arrest of activists, was the sole candidate endorsed by an exclusive committee vetted to ensure their loyalty to China. With activists jailed or in exile and civil society groups and independent media forced into closure, Lee promises to continue the security-first agenda that will see an enduring crackdown on civic freedoms and the continuing erasure of Hong Kong’s former special status. The country is increasingly indistinguishable from mainland China.

On 8 May, John Lee was chosen – rather than democratically elected – as Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, the country’s titular head of government. The result surprised no one. Hong Kong’s circa 7.5 million population didn’t have a say in the matter. Voting was limited to a mere 0.02 per cent: the only voters were members of the Election Committee, a group of 1,500 people, handpicked and vetted to ensure their ‘patriotism’. Lee himself headed the vetting committee.

He was also the only candidate. When outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced she was stepping aside and Lee put his name forward, it was made known that Lee would be the sole candidate endorsed by the Chinese state. Other potential candidates failed to receive sufficient nominations or they read the signals and expressed their support for Lee. This meant that Election Committee members were merely asked whether they supported or didn’t support Lee. After a token campaign, involving the belated launch of a minimal manifesto and a solitary rally not open to the public, Lee was duly declared the winner with 1,416 of 1,428 votes cast.

Hong Kong’s special status erased

Lee’s accession marks only the latest milestone in the Chinese government’s ongoing mission to erase Hong Kong’s supposedly protected special status. When the country was handed over to China by colonial power the UK in 1997, the government of China agreed to maintain its distinct political and economic structures for the next 50 years, under the banner of ‘one country, two systems’.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which serves as its constitution and came into effect at the handover, established the country’s autonomy under Chinese rule until 2047 and guaranteed civic rights, including the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. It also agreed to move towards universal suffrage for the election of its Chief Executive.

But China has unilaterally torn up that agreement. Hong Kong is increasingly unrecognisable as the place that once had a flourishing media and publishing industry, where civil society organisations felt safe to set up their offices and people felt able to protest.

The Chinese state is determined never again to see protests of the kind that mobilised in 2019, sparked by an extradition bill that would have enabled Hong Kong dissidents to be removed to China. Mass protests were met with a brutal security force response and large-scale detentions as people demanded universal suffrage.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic brought protests to a halt in early 2020, the state has moved decisively to eliminate freedoms. A National Security Law, passed in June 2020, criminalises a wide range of vaguely defined offences, including sedition, subversion and threats to national security. It extended police powers, including in surveillance, and established security bodies directly under Chinese control.

Since then, many of the leaders of the protest movement, most of them young, have been jailed. Several have experienced multiple trials for different offences and been handed long sentences. The only way others have avoided this fate is by slipping away into exile. Arrests continue, increasingly on the serious charge of sedition.

Key independent media have shut down, unable to operate within the National Security Law. Similarly, several pro-democracy groups have disbanded. Any recent attempts at protests have quickly been stifled.

It isn’t just in the choice of Chief Executive where anything but the barest ceremony of democracy has been eliminated. The Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, has been reworked. As some of its seats were directly elected, it used to be a focus of opposition. But in March 2021 the number of directly elected seats was cut and broad criteria introduced to disqualify anyone from standing if they question China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong or support Hong Kong’s independence. Voting was postponed for over a year, ostensibly on pandemic grounds, but the delay also enabled the state to jail or disqualify potential candidates.

When voting finally took place amid a heavy police presence in December 2021, only one person not squarely pro-China was able to make it onto the Council. It had been made illegal to call for a boycott of voting or the casting of protest votes, but still the only way people could express disapproval was to stay away, and most did: turnout was at a record low of 30.2 per cent, down almost half on the previous election.

Xi Jinping’s war on diversity

As well as reacting to 2019’s mass protests, China’s erasure of Hong Kong’s special status comes as part of a broader crackdown on dissent, and on anything that might be perceived as offering some kind of challenge to the power of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese Communist Party will hold its National Congress this November, and Xi’s evident mission is for this to be a coronation in which his third term in office will be serenely confirmed. In advance of this, identification with anything other than the Communist Party and a mainstream Chinese identity is being actively suppressed. Minorities, including the Uighur people and other religious minorities, have faced intensified mass repression. In Hong Kong, the mainland Mandarin language is being increasingly imposed in education rather than the local Cantonese, in classes that relentlessly push Communist Party propaganda.

In China, last year the government declared war on popular culture and even non-political online activity. A barrage of new restrictions has been imposed on innocent pastimes like TV talent shows, online games and karaoke, and multiple celebrities have vanished from TV and streaming services. Nothing must compete with what is now an evident Xi personality cult.

Xi’s power and that of the Chinese state has rested on rapid economic growth that has transformed cities and changed the way of life of many. But now is seems that if push comes to shove economic activity must yield to political supremacy. Tech companies boomed but have now been targeted with increasing regulation; last year the Chinese government ordered the break-up of online payments giant Alipay and told online tutoring companies they must restructure as not-for-profit enterprises. In April the government imposed a draconian lockdown on the economic hub of Shanghai, leaving people starving, overriding a previously less stringent local policy that focused on keeping economic activity going.

In Hong Kong, previously used by international companies as their regional hub, over 80 per cent of US firms now report impacts from the National Security Law and almost half of European companies are considering relocating some or all their staff. Heavy pandemic restrictions are undoubtedly a factor here, but so is the deterioration of freedoms and uncertainty over the rule of law, particularly for the many tech and media companies that made Hong Kong their home. Hong Kong’s population is falling as many young people in particular are heading elsewhere: hardly a positive sign.

Hong Kong is increasingly unrecognisable as the place that once had a flourishing media and publishing industry, where civil society organisations felt safe to set up their offices and people felt free to protest.

Enter Chief Executive-designate Lee, a leader whose track record suggests no experience relevant to running a government and economy but plenty in repressing its population: Lee is a former police chief who in 2017 was promoted to Chief Secretary of Security. In this capacity, he pushed for the extradition bill and then oversaw the violent crackdown on the protests against it and the subsequent arrests of democracy activists. In what passed for his electoral campaign he made clear that security will be his top priority. He has never been anything other than obediently pro-China.

The future for Hong Kong’s democracy activists looks grim. Economic decline could bring pressure, on Lee in Hong Kong and his master Xi on the mainland. But until then, whatever international solidarity can be mobilised is needed to keep the flame of democracy alive in Hong Kong, including among its many dissidents now scattered abroad, as well as those who languish in its jails, courtesy of their country’s new leader.

Cover photo by REUTERS/Lam Yik via Gallo Images


  • International human rights bodies should expand their monitoring and reporting on human rights violations in Hong Kong.
  • Civil society in countries of exiled Hong Kong activists should support activists and help sustain international networks of exiled activists.
  • International businesses operating in Hong Kong should take steps to ensure they are not complicit in enabling human rights violations, and commit to withdrawal if they are.