Halfway to 2047: The Political Significance of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election
The election of John Lee as the Chief Executive-designate, who obtained 1,416 (99.15 percent) of the total 1,428 votes (with a 97.74 percent of voter turnout), during the sixth term of the Chief Executive election on May 8, 2022, represented a watershed in the political history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).
First, the year 2022 is marking the 25thyear of the operation of “one country, two systems” in the HKSAR, where its political development during its first 25 years was viewed by the central government in Beijing as relatively turbulent and highly unstable. As such, Beijing changed the composition and the electoral methods of the seventh Legislative Council (LegCo) in March 2021, leading to the holding of the new LegCo elections on December 19, 2021. The LegCo election results realized the principle of “patriots ruling the HKSAR”while excluding the participation of all those people who were deemed as “anti-China and creating chaos to Hong Kong.” The sixth term of the HKSAR Chief Executive election was the last step in the three-stage process of “improving” and “perfecting” the electoral system, following (1) the selection of the 1,500 members of the Election Committee (EC) on September 19, 2021, and (2) the December 2021 LegCo elections. Hence, the Chief Executive election on May 8 was a completion of the three stages of “improving” Hong Kong’s electoral system, stabilizing the polity and establishing the foundation of political development in the second half of the 50 years of “one country, two systems.”
Second, unlike critics who played down the Chief Executive election on May 8 as “politically insignificant” because John Lee was the only candidate, the election was politically significant in the context of “democratic centralism” in the mainland Chinese electoral tradition. The Hong Kong Chief Executive election remains democratic in the sense that (1) the sole candidate, John Lee, had to reach out to not only 1,500 members of the Election Committee by using a more comprehensive campaign platform, but also to ordinary people in the society to foster an atmosphere of democracy. His electoral legitimacy must be earned substantially from gaining a high percentage of votes and procedurally from a systematically orchestrated process of unveiling his platform, communicating with the voters, and interacting with some members of the public. The “centralist” aspect of the Hong Kong Chief Executive election is obvious; there was only one candidate, namely John Lee, who acquired the tacit support of central authorities.
Third, Lee’s tacit support from central authorities was highly significant in this election. It was reported that officials of the Liaison Office in April told some members of the Election Committee that Lee would be the sole candidate in this Chief Executive election. The implication was obvious: while the society and media of the HKSAR kept circulating rumors that there would be more than one candidate running for the Chief Executive elections, the central authorities gave a decisive political signal at a suitable moment, implying that Hong Kong’s political elites should remain united, that they should not fight among themselves through factionalism, and that political unity would be crucial to the beginning of the second half of the “one country, two systems” in the HKSAR.
Fourth, the Chief Executive election on May 8 represented the realization of a Hong Kong style of democracy. On December 20, 2021, just one day after the holding of the LegCo elections, the central government published a document on Hong Kong’s democratic development. The document emphasized that the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese government were and are the “designer, creator, protector and promoter” of the democratic system of the HKSAR. They not only “innovatively create the great idea of ‘one country, two systems’ but also construct a democratic system in accordance with the principles of ‘one country, two systems’ and suitable for the circumstances of Hong Kong.” In other words, the people of Hong Kong must appreciate and respect the role of the CPC and the mainland government in leading the creation of “one country, two systems” and shaping a political system in accordance with the needs of the HKSAR.
Therefore, Beijing’s tacit endorsement of John Lee as the sole candidate for the sixth term of the Chief Executive election was significant; he symbolized the strong back-up from the central government. His background as a former assistant and deputy commissioner of the police from 2003 to 2011, and as a former undersecretary and then secretary for security from 2012 to mid-2021 demonstrated that the central leadership prefers a Hong Kong Chief Executive with strong security credentials to safeguard Beijing’s national security over the HKSAR, especially after the turbulent years of socio-political movement, including the 2012 anti-national education movement, the September-December 2014 Occupy Central Movement, the Mongkok riot in early 2016, the oath-taking incident in October-November 2016, and the anti-extradition chaos in the latter half of 2019. After Chief Executive Carrie Lam told Beijing in March 2021 that she would not continue to be the next Chief Executive on July 1, 2022, the central leadership decided to appoint John Lee on June 25, 2021, as the Chief Secretary for Administration. At that moment, the Hong Kong media saw Lee’s appointment as merely a step made by the central authorities in consolidating the national security work in the HKSAR. However, most observers and media commentators underestimated that Lee’s background and credentials fit into the central leadership’s political will to safeguard the national security of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the HKSAR.
Fifth, the central leadership’s selection of John Lee as the next Chief Executive of the HKSAR conforms to the key principle of “implementing the center’s comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions,” a key tenet mentioned by President Xi Jinping in his important speech delivered on July 1, 2021, during the one hundred anniversaries of the CPC. According to President Xi, such “comprehensive jurisdiction” meant that Hong Kong and Macau would have “to implement the legal system and executive mechanisms of protecting national security, to protect the national sovereignty, security and developmental interest of the nation, and to protect the long-term prosperity and stability” of the two cities. While John Lee’s campaign platform focused more on the socio-economic roots of the 2019 political disturbances and touched lightly on the national security issue, his endorsement by the center and successful election on May 8 matched the central leadership’s blueprint over the HKSAR.
Sixth, while the media focused on the comparisons and contrasts between John Lee’s votes obtained with his predecessors in the HKSAR Chief Executive elections, such comparisons and contrasts missed the overriding concerns of Beijing over the HKSAR, namely political unity and unquestionable mandate of supporting Lee in the crucial inception of the next 25 years of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. In 1996, Tung Chee-hwa gained 320 votes out of the 400 members of the Election Committee, obtaining 80 percent of the total votes and was elected as the first Chief Executive. In 2007, Donald Tsang grasped 649 out of 788 votes from the Election Committee and was elected as the Chief Executive with 82.4 percent of the total votes. In 2012, C. Y. Leung captured 689 out of 1,132 votes from the Election Committee and was elected as the Chief Executive with 60.9 percent of the total votes. In 2017, Carrie Lam got 777 votes out of 1,163 members from the Election Committee and was elected as the Chief Executive with 66.8 precent of the total votes. On April 13, 2021, John Lee acquired 786 nominations to participate in the Chief Executive election – a number exceeding the required 751 votes for his victory. On May 8, Lee easily captured 1,416 votes with only 8 votes against him, demonstrating that the majority of the power elites understood the intention of Beijing and giving him a strong mandate to govern the HKSAR.
The 99 percent votes for Lee fit into the central leadership’s desires to confer strongest mandate upon Lee so that he will implement his platform to address the socio-economic problems and contradictions of the HKSAR in a far more effective manner. If the HKSAR situation is socially and politically stabilized, and if its economy would gradually return to normalcy and would rebound as Covid-19 is gradually fading away, the next political target of the PRC will be the question of Taiwan’s economic and political future. As President Xi Jinping stressed in his important speech on July 1, 2021, “solving the Taiwan question and realizing the motherland’s complete reunification are the historical mission and persistent will of the CPC and the common expectation of all the sons and daughters of China.” Political stability, social progress and economic prosperity will be the crucial mission of John Lee and his new batch of secretaries and undersecretaries so that the central leadership will turn to deal with the question of Taiwan in the foreseeable future. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was determined to utilize the model of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Macau as a stepping-stone for the CPC’s future leaders to resolve the question of Taiwan’s political future.
In conclusion, John Lee’s election as the next Chief Executive of the HKSAR is undoubtedly a turning point in the political development of Hong Kong. Given the politically turbulent years in the HKSAR during its first half of the path of “one country, two systems,” the central authorities have been determined to create a politically united and socially stable Hong Kong where the center’s national security and sovereignty are fully protected. As such, John Lee’s selection as the sole candidate for the sixth term of the Chief Executive, who will lead Hong Kong at the beginning of the next 25 years of its “one country, two systems,” is politically significant. Lee and his new government will be entrusted with the tasks of solving the socio-economic contradictions and problems of the HKSAR while safeguarding Beijing’s national security interests. Once the HKSAR situation is politically and socially stabilized, and once its economic development witnesses a rebound, the question of Taiwan’s future will become a policy priority of the central leadership in the PRC. It will be interesting to observe whether the central leaders will visit the HKSAR to attend the inauguration ceremony of John Lee as the next Chief Executive on July 1, 2022, which will significantly open the inception of the second half of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong.