Ex-Cop Named Hong Kong’s No. 2 as China Prioritizes Security

Hong Kong’s top security official will take over the city’s No. 2 spot in a cabinet reshuffle, the latest sign that a crackdown on dissent is central to China’s long-term plans for the Asian financial center.

Security Secretary John Lee -- a former long-time police official -- has been promoted to chief secretary for administration, Hong Kong’s top official, Carrie Lam, told a news conference Friday alongside Lee and other security officials receiving promotions. China’s cabinet approved the appointments Wednesday, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The next day a campaign led by Lee forced Apple Daily, the city’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, to shut down.

Lee, 63, will replace Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, and Police Commissioner Chris Tang, 55, move into the security secretary’s role. Raymond Siu, 55, a deputy police commissioner who joined the force in 1988, will take over Tang’s position at the law enforcement agency.

David Webb, a prominent Hong Kong investor who has put funds into Apple Daily’s parent, Next Digital Ltd., said the government missed an opportunity to appoint a stronger team to repair the financial hub’s battered economy. “Instead, Hong Kong is starting to look more like a police state, with the No. 2 position now being filled by a hardliner whose recent achievement is to cripple a newspaper,” Webb said in a text message.

China has carried out an unprecedented campaign to curb dissent in Hong Kong, led by national security legislation handed down on June 30 last year in response to a wave of unrest. The closure of Apple Daily, which was under pressure after Lee used the security law to freeze the company’s assets as part of the city’s prosecution of company founder Jimmy Lai, represented one of the biggest blows yet to the local democracy movement.

The U.K. and the U.S. condemned the newspaper’s closure, with President Joe Biden calling it a “sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.” Lee, one of several Hong Kong officials sanctioned by the Trump administration for their role in implementing the security law, has been a vocal proponent of the legislation.

“The relevant remarks by the U.S. leader are totally groundless,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday at a regular briefing in Beijing, without directly naming Biden.

“The law on safeguarding national security in Hong Kong focuses on cracking down on a handful of anti-China, destabilizing forces who seriously endanger national security,” Zhao said. “The law protects the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the vast majority of Hong Kong residents, including press freedom.”

The new team will be charged with overseeing a series of elections in the coming months under a Beijing-led revamp that, among other things, created a panel to vet candidates for “patriotism.” Lam, who hasn’t yet said whether she’ll see a second term when her first expires next year, has also been tasked by Beijing to pass local legislation expanding the city’s powers to police national security.

“Because the government is going through the enforcement stage of the national security law, I won’t be surprised if the government wants to put people well versed with law enforcement in senior positions,” Regina Ip, who served as the city’s security secretary two decades ago and is a current member of the Executive Council that advises Hong Kong’s leader, told Bloomberg Television before the formal announcement.

Ex-Cop Named Hong Kong’s No. 2 as China Prioritizes Security

The chief secretary’s post has been a springboard to higher office: two of city’s four chief executives since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 first served in the role. The appointment of a law-enforcement officer to the top administrative post marked a shift for the former British colony, which has long been dominated by career civil servants like Lam.

“There is definitely no change in the role and responsibility of the chief secretary,” Lam told reporters Friday. “The mere fact that a particular candidate is coming from a particular background doesn’t mean that the job will fit him by asking him only to perform in an area that he is most familiar with. That’s not the situation.”

Senior appointments are made at the recommendation of the Hong Kong government, but need final approval from Beijing. Xinhua didn’t explain why the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced the appointment two days after it was approved.

Ex-Cop Named Hong Kong’s No. 2 as China Prioritizes Security

Lee has sought to broaden the scope of the security law by formally stating that police surveillance of communications comes under its scope, potentially giving the authorities broader powers to intercept information.

“The implementation of the security law turned Hong Kong from chaos to governance,” he said in the Friday morning news conference. “The ‘patriots-ruling-Hong Kong’ principle and improvement of electoral system put an end to chaos and and times of destruction, opening up a new chapter of development and effective governance.”

In a press conference following the arrest of five top Apple Daily executives last week, Lee said residents must distance themselves from the suspects or “you will pay a hefty price.” He earlier warned that prominent Hong Kong activists who had fled overseas to evade the security law -- such as former politicians Nathan Law and Ted Hui -- would be pursued for life.

Lee’s appointment “may be a proactive strategy to elicit loyalty from the police force,” said Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

“The police force has become much more important for maintaining social order and implementing the national security law,” Liu said. “You appoint someone who has been a policeman their entire career -- that’s a symbol of the increasing power of the police.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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