It comes as no surprise that John Lee (李家超) is destined to be elected Hong Kong’s new chief executive today.
Proclaiming to safeguard national security and political stability above everything else, Lee is confronted with a world where US-China disputes over Taiwan and COVID-19 loom over Hong Kong’s fragile economy. His new administration would be vulnerable to three structural obstacles that are beyond his capability to resolve.
First is legitimacy, which the incumbent chief executive lacks due to the rapid disappearance of viable systems and norms that hold the postcolonial government accountable.
Pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party is now a precondition for becoming chief executive. The single-candidate chief executive race is more a ritualistic confirmation of the appointment made by the party’s top leadership rather than a transparent competition among pro-Beijing candidates.
Given his extensive background in policing and security, Lee’s rise to power is seen by many critics as an assault on democratic governance. The Hong Kong Police has operated as a semi-militarized force, with a bureaucratic structure, managerial style, internal training and institutional subculture that appears similar to that of a professional army.
Police oppression still lingers in Hong Kongers’ mind. As the territory’s former secretary for security, Lee allegedly played an instrumental role in the mysterious disappearances of protesters in 2019, the wrongful arrests of democracy advocates, the stifling of free speech, and the brutal crackdowns on opposition parties and civic organizations.
Ever since China promulgated the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30, 2020, the territory’s ruling elites cemented their claim to leadership through dictatorial measures.
What has worked in the past might not work in the future. Faced with the quandary of ruling by coercion or consent, Lee has yet to cultivate an image of executive competence and political tolerance. Unless he rebuilds a functioning system that incorporates the basic principles of justice and fairness, governing by violence and fear would only lead to a dead end.
The second crisis is constitutional. Hong Kongers have yet to come to grips with the end of China’s “one country, two systems” framework.
Michael Davis wrote in his 2020 book Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law that “the intrusion of the new National Security Law is not so much a new behavior as it is a progression of a long pattern of intervention and distrust that dates back to before the handover.”
China’s draconian rule has fundamentally changed the territory’s “promised liberal constitution” into a tightly controlled “national security constitution,” Davis wrote.
Gone is former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) commitment to maintaining a liberal open society according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Such autocratic maneuverings led to a direct takeover of the territory’s political governance.
Worse still, the arrangement of the “one country, two systems” framework has degenerated into that of “one Hong Kong, two realities.” Police officers and privileged members of the elite become inviolable and immune from any legal processes, whereas ordinary people are subject to much scrutiny.
The erosive effects of nepotism and cronyism add to the list of scandals that have eroded Hong Kongers’ confidence in the integrity of public governance.
As the scope of the security law continues to evolve, Hong Kongers have seen a profound change in daily life. Everything becomes politicized in this new era of securitization.
Civil servants perceive business activities, education and social issues through the lens of regime security, thereby imposing extrajudicial measures against anyone who speaks out and exercises their rights.
Local judges, who are versed in common law traditions, are compelled to defend the national security order at the expense of the principles of fair play and substantial justice.
The third challenge concerns Hong Kong’s diminishing status as a non-sovereign entity. Along with other Chinese national officials who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, Lee has been on the US sanctions list for more than a year.
When the US sanctions top leaders of a state, they are no longer seen as legitimate by foreign officials. The sanctions are more than a sideshow; they impose certain costs on Hong Kong’s financial institutions.
Washington has clearly signaled to Beijing that the next Hong Kong leadership would need to make policy changes acceptable to the West before there could be any improvement in bilateral ties.
However, China’s decision to anoint Lee as Hong Kong’s next leader is an obvious statement of national pride and defiance to the West.
Seeing no hope in a futureless society, more Hong Kongers are fleeing their beloved territory. It is no longer possible for the ruling elites to employ the logic of economic transaction to co-opt and control people.
Managing a government perceived as devoid of legitimacy is immensely difficult. Whether Lee is pragmatic enough to understand that Hong Kong’s fortunes rise and fall with global political and economic trends remains to be seen.
Among all the pressing political issues, the most urgent is for the Hong Kong administration to balance the symbiotic relationship between the rule of law and the exercise of power. Otherwise, it would be impossible to restore the territory’s volatile institutions and stop everything from falling apart.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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