John Lee has quit his role as Chief Secretary ahead of Hong Kong’s small-circle leadership race, less than a year after he was appointed to the position.

John Lee. File photo: GovHK.

Current Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on Monday that she would not run for the position on May 8. Her office confirmed Lee’s resignation in a Wednesday press release: “Mr Lee will proceed on leave with immediate effect.”

Also on Wednesday, local media cited sources as saying that Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong had met with members of the Election Committee and urged them to support Lee – the only candidate with the central authorities’ approval.

Who is John Lee?

Lee, 64, joined the Hong Kong Police Force as a probationary inspector in 1977 and was later promoted to chief superintendent in 1997. Subsequently, he was promoted to assistant commissioner in 2003 and senior assistant commissioner in 2007. In 2010, he became the deputy commissioner of the Force.

Lee was appointed as under secretary for security during former chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration in 2012, and became the secretary for security when Carrie Lam took office in 2017.

Ballot counting during the 2021 Election Committee poll. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In June 2021, Beijing approved Lam’s nomination and appointed Lee as the chief secretary for administration, replacing Matthew Cheung. It marked the first time a former police officer from the security branch of government had assumed a top role in the administration.

Lee’s promotion to the No. 2 role in Hong Kong’s government led to criticism that the city had become a police state, prompting Lam to defend the appointment as merit-based.

The nomination period for the upcoming small-circle chief executive race opened on April 3 and will run until April 16. Leadership hopefuls must secure at least 15 nominations from each of the five sectors in the Election Committee to be in the running.

John Lee. File photo: GovHK.

The requirement was added as part of Hong Kong’s election overhaul implemented by Beijing in March 2021. It saw the Election Committee altered, with more seats created for representatives with strong mainland ties.

Hong Kong’s next leader will be decided by the 1,462 current members of the Election Committee on May 8.

Emphasis on national security

When the anti-extradition protests erupted across the city in 2019, as secretary for security, Lee was responsible for the coordination of Hong Kong’s disciplined forces.

He also announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill in the Legislative Council on October 23, 2019.

Anti-extradition bill protests in 2019. File photo: Kaiser Tam/USP & HKFP.

In response to criticism that he “lacked experience in policymaking” when he took the chief secretary position, Lee said he had more than 40 years of experience in government and his understanding of its work was “no less than most colleagues, ” citing his work during the 2019 “riots” as an example.

After Lee was appointed to the role, Lam said his main focus would be to aid her in “how to intensify the maintenance of national security,” while she did not expect him to work on unfamiliar areas like poverty, youth, and ethnic minority issues.

In recent years, Lee has pushed for the implementation of the Article 23 of the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s own national security legislation – and regulations targeting “fake news.”

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.