HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s former No. 2 official John Lee on Saturday officially declared his candidacy in the upcoming leadership election, entering the race for the chief executive considered by many to be Beijing’s preferred candidate.
Lee said at an online press conference that he will stand for the May 8 election after the Chinese government approved his resignation as the city’s chief secretary of administration, which he submitted last week.
He said a new government under his leadership would uphold the rule of law and the “one country, two systems” framework in the city, allowing Hong Kong to govern semi-autonomously and enjoy certain freedoms not found in mainland China .
“This decision is based on my loyalty to my country, my love for Hong Kong and my sense of duty to the people of Hong Kong,” Lee said.
Lee’s candidacy comes after current leader Carrie Lam announced they were in power after five difficult years in power spanning the COVID-19 pandemic, a crackdown on political liberties and Beijing’s rapid and growing hold on the territory , would not run for a second term.
Lee, 64, is a staunch supporter of the city’s national security law, which has been in use since 2020 to target pro-democracy activists, supporters and the media and reduce the freedoms Hong Kong was promised during Britain’s handover to China in 1997.
City experts see a possible government under Lee as a sign that Beijing could continue to have a firm grip on the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The chief executive is elected by an electoral committee of about 1,500 people, the majority of whom are pro-Beijing. The new chairman will take office on July 1.
Lee spent the early years of his public service career as a police officer, steadily rising through the ranks. He was Hong Kong’s security minister in July 2017 under Lam’s government and was promoted to chief secretary for administration last June.
Lee was a key figure in proposing a controversial law in 2019 that would have allowed Hong Kong suspects to be extradited to mainland China. He later oversaw a police crackdown on protesters after the proposed law sparked months of massive anti-government protests in 2019.
After the protests were crushed, Lee was an outspoken supporter of the city’s imposed national security law, which outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the city’s affairs and was used to suppress dissent. Over 150 people have been arrested since the law was implemented.
In 2020, the US sanctioned Lee along with Lam and other Hong Kong and mainland China government officials for “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting freedom of expression and assembly”.
Next month’s elections will be the first since Hong Kong’s electoral laws were changed last year to ensure only “patriots” loyal to Beijing could hold office. The changes make it more difficult for pro-democracy supporters to run for chief executive.
Hong Kong’s leader is elected every five years, although the selection process is carefully orchestrated behind the scenes by Beijing. The four chief executives chosen since Hong Kong’s handover were all candidates seen as favored by Beijing.
Lee said he will focus policy-making on ensuring Hong Kong remains competitive globally and “strengthening its role as the gateway and bridge between our country and the world.”