Pro-establishment voices have indicated that the central government prefers a one-candidate race for chief executive, and that Chief Secretary John Lee fits the bill.

Lee’s loyalty has been battle-tested. Choosing him signals that the Chinese Communist Party is not confident about security in Hong Kong. It also lets us know that the central government continues to distrust the Hong Kong government and people. But then only about 22 per cent of the Hong Kong people trust either government, too.

Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee speaks at an online side event on Hong Kong-related issues during 49th session of United Nations Human Rights Council on March 16, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Lee, a career police officer and ex-secretary of security, would come to leadership of the city with baggage. In that former role, he – together with the Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng – failed to consider in sufficient depth the political risks of pushing forward amendments to the extradition bill in 2019.

Together with other Executive Council members, they did not understand the depths of discontent in Hong Kong. Their incompetence in this matter contributed much to the anti-government protests in 2019 that brought us to where we are today. Selecting Lee as chief
executive telegraphs to the people of Hong Kong that no officials will be held accountable for the chaos in 2019, yet this chaos was co-produced.

Selecting Lee symbolises the decay of Hong Kong’s system of accountability. It used to work reasonably well.

Witness the first Tung administration and those who left government after policy missteps, such as Article 23, and policy blunders like SARS. The government continues to round up, try, and jail citizens who participated in the anti-government protests. The government refuses to accept any blame for its role in 2019. Shame.

A protest against the extradition law on July 7, 2019. File Photo: May James.

Selecting Lee also sidelines the civilian side of government, and particularly the Administrative Officer grade, which has supplied leaders for Hong Kong. The central government has found them deficient, evidenced by their indifferent management of the 2019 protests and our zero-Covid policy.

I expect that going forward, authorities will more tightly control the AO grade: its recruitment, promotion, and appointments. We can anticipate that the government will select AOs from a wider field, including from qualified mainland candidates and select appointees from outside the grade at mid and senior levels. This makes the grade more position-based and should be encouraged.

The AO grade provides a network inside government and beyond government that includes clients of departments led by AOs, and a vast group of AO retirees. This network provides advice on appointments to principal official positions. Of course, advice comes from other quarters, too.

Selecting Lee, a police officer who is not part of this network, leaves him more dependent on the Liaison Office for advice on whom to appoint to government. This serves the interests of the central government and the party, and maybe Hong Kong. Rather than a chief executive-elect going to the Liaison Office with a list of potential appointees, the initiative will now rest with Luo Huining. This is a legacy of Lam.

In this situation, we can expect more occupational diversity among government appointees, as in our new-look Election Committee. As we can see, the party has selected committee members from among like-minded people, that is, party-defined patriots that are more occupationally representative. This system does not, however, value diversity of views or opinions.

Candidates in the Election Committee constituency in Hong Kong’s first “patriots-only” Legislative Council election. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The Election Committee endorses the party’s chief executive candidate in a move that is mostly symbolic. Whether their endorsement will be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people of Hong Kong is unclear. Let’s remember that 70 per cent of voters shunned the 2021 Legislative Council election, many perceiving the electoral changes as unfair. This group is unlikely to be won over by whatever the Election Committee does this time.

A more occupationally diverse government would include leaders of China’s state-owned
enterprises, resident in Hong Kong. It would include more officials with disciplined services background, because of their proven loyalty, and the central government’s tighter control of them. It may also include more members of local parties such as the DAB, also because of their proven loyalty.

Because so much government policy is co-produced, authorities need the active cooperation of the people of Hong Kong to implement policy successfully. Consider our Covid policy and the government’s apparent inability to push vaccinations among the elderly. Beyond public security and public health many other policies from solid waste management to water conservation depend on trusting, willing citizens. Have authorities left citizens out of their calculation? It would appear so.

Selecting John Lee for chief executive, dependent for his authority on the party and the police, is a calculated move. Authorities are telling us that political skills do not matter, and that neither does inspiring and mobilising the people of Hong Kong. Yet we need inspiring leaders, able to mobilise. So, who will do that?


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John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.