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Beijing loyalist John Lee elected as Hong Kong's next leader

John Lee, former No. 2 official in Hong Kong and the only candidate for the city's top job, celebrates with his wife after declaring his victory in the chief executive election of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, Sunday, May 8, 2022.
Kin Cheung
/
AP
John Lee, former No. 2 official in Hong Kong and the only candidate for the city's top job, celebrates with his wife after declaring his victory in the chief executive election of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, Sunday, May 8, 2022.

Updated May 8, 2022 at 4:07 AM ET

HONG KONG — John Lee was elected as Hong Kong's next leader Sunday, after winning over 99% of votes cast by a largely pro-Beijing election committee.

Lee received 1,416 votes in the chief executive election, far exceeding the 751 votes he needed to win and the highest support ever for the city's top leadership position. The Election Committee's nearly 1,500 members cast their votes in a secret ballot Sunday morning.

"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 in his victory speech.

Lee will replace current leader Carrie Lam on July 1.

As the only candidate in the polls, Lee was widely expected to win, especially since he had Beijing's endorsement and last month obtained 786 nominations from members of the Election Committee in support of his candidacy.

Lam congratulated Lee in a statement and said she would submit the election results to Beijing.

"The present-term government and I will ensure a seamless transition with the Chief Executive-elect. We will render all the support needed for the assumption of office by the new term of government," Lam's statement said.

The election followed major changes to Hong Kong's electoral laws last year to ensure that only "patriots" loyal to Beijing can hold office. The legislature was also reorganized to all but eliminate opposition voices.

The elaborate arrangements surrounding the pre-determined outcome speak to Beijing's desire for a veneer of democracy. Though they voted in a secret ballot, Hong Kong's electors were all carefully vetted.

The Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong also congratulated Lee in a statement and said the election was conducted in a "fair, just and orderly manner in accordance with laws and regulations."

"Lee received many nominations and was elected with a high number of 1,416 votes. This is not only the solemn choice of the election committee, but also a strong expression of public opinion," the statement read.

Mainland China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council also congratulated Lee in a statement, saying the "successful election" proved that the city's new electoral system is "good" and in line with the "one country, two systems" framework that Hong Kong is governed by.

The statement added that the new chief executive will lead the Hong Kong government and "people from all walks of life to forge ahead in unity."

The British handed Hong Kong over to mainland China in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" framework, which promised the city certain freedoms not found on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly.

Critics say these freedoms are being eroded as Beijing has exerted greater control over the former British colony in recent years.

On Sunday morning, three members of the League of Social Democrats, a local activist group, protested the election by attempting to march toward the election venue while displaying a banner demanding universal suffrage that would allow Hong Kongers to vote both for the legislature and the chief executive.

"Human rights over power, the people are greater than the country," the banner read. "One person, one vote for the chief executive. Immediately implement dual universal suffrage."

One protester was handing out flyers before police arrived and cordoned off the protesters and the banner. Police also searched protesters' belongings and took down their personal details, though no arrests were immediately made.

The pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong has long demanded universal suffrage, which they say is promised to the city in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law. It was also a key demand in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests and 2019 anti-government demonstrations.

Lee's role as Hong Kong's next leader has sparked concern that Beijing could further tighten its grip on Hong Kong. He spent most of his civil service career in the police and security bureau, and is an outspoken and staunch supporter of a national security law imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 aimed at stamping out dissent.

His rise grew out of massive anti-government protests in 2019 that spiraled into violent clashes. As security secretary, he oversaw the police campaign to confront protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, then rounded many of them up for arrest later.

More than 150 people have been arrested under the security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city's affairs. Almost all prominent pro-democracy activists have been jailed, with others fleeing abroad or being intimidated into silence.

Thousands of residents have left the city of 7.4 million people amid the 2019 protests and subsequent harsh pandemic restrictions, including many professionals and expatriates.

In his election campaign in the weeks leading up to Sunday's polls, Lee pledged to enact long-shelved local legislation to protect against security threats and vowed to increase housing supply in the world's most expensive real estate market.

He also said he would improve the city's competitiveness and set a firm foundation for Hong Kong's development.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.