Western multinationals hail Hong Kong’s new leader

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Hong Kong (AFP) – Western multinationals and local tycoons ran newspaper ads on Monday congratulating John Lee on becoming Hong Kong’s next leader, following a rubber stamp selection process condemned by critics as undemocratic.

Lee, 64, a former security chief who oversaw a crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was named the new business center chief on Sunday in a near-unanimous vote by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

He was the only candidate in the race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam at a time when Hong Kong is being reshaped in the authoritarian image of China.

Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, two newspapers that report to the bureau that sets Beijing’s Hong Kong policy, were filled Monday with ads from big companies and business figures praising Lee’s selection.

The majority came from Chinese and Hong Kong companies as well as community organizations.

The “big four” accountancy firms – KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC – were among the Western multinationals running the ads, as were urban carrier Cathay Pacific and conglomerates Swire and Jardine Matheson.

Messages have also come in from Hong Kong’s family tycoon-dominated property giants, including Sun Hung Kai and Henderson Land Development.

Western companies have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position in Hong Kong, especially as geopolitical tensions have risen with China.

Many have embraced progressive political causes in Western markets, such as the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement, same-sex equality, and removing labor abuse supply chains.

But they generally avoid any criticism of China’s policy towards hotspots like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Some companies such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Swire and Jardine Matheson have publicly backed Beijing’s national security law, which was imposed on Hong Kong after 2019 democracy protests to curb dissent.

Can Hong Kong reopen?

Lee’s elevation, which is subject to US sanctions, puts a security official in Hong Kong’s top job for the first time after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and economically debilitating pandemic controls .

John Lee, the former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement, was declared the business center’s new chief on May 8. Peter PARKS AFP/File

Despite the city’s mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, the source of years of protests since handover to China in 1997.

After the 2019 rallies, Beijing responded with a crackdown and a new “patriots-only” political control system that rooted out the city’s once outspoken political opposition.

Lee faced no rivals and won 99% of the votes cast by the 1,461-person committee that chooses the town leader, or about 0.02% of the town’s population.

Beijing hailed the process as “a true demonstration of the democratic spirit”.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, countered that the selection process was a “violation of democratic principles and political pluralism”.

Lee, a former police officer, has vowed to strengthen Hong Kong’s national security and further integrate the city with the mainland.

He wants to restart the city’s economy and slowly reopen its pandemic-sealed borders at a time when rivals have moved on to living with the coronavirus.

But it’s unclear how he can do this given that China has doubled down on its strict zero-Covid strategy.

On Monday morning, Lam met with his successor Lee and the two gave short speeches stressing that they would prepare for an orderly transition between their administrations.

Western multinationals and local tycoons ran newspaper ads congratulating John Lee on becoming Hong Kong's next leader
Western multinationals and local tycoons ran newspaper ads congratulating John Lee on becoming Hong Kong’s next leader Pierre PARCSAFP

Lee, who takes over on July 1, was Lam’s security chief and then his deputy.

Lee said his first stop would be the main Chinese agencies in Hong Kong – the liaison office, the national security committee, the foreign ministry office and the People’s Liberation Army garrison.

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