The festivities to mark 25 years since the British handover to China of Hong Kong also marked the official arrival of the new leader of Hong Kong, John Lee, who will move things even faster and closer to Beijing.
The scene was set well Friday as Hong Kong marked 25 years of being back under Chinese rule. The weather forecast predicted a typhoon, just as it had in 1997 when the sovereignty of the island city was officially transferred to Beijing, ending the era of being a British colony that had begun in 1842. But there were other storms brewing.
Streets flooded with Chinese and Hong Kong flags, cheering crowds, history lessons and speeches — and at the center was President Xi Jinping, who arrived on Thursday, for his visit outside mainland China since the 2020 Covid outbreak, and his first visit to Hong Kong since 2017.
But the other face to keep track of for Hong Kong’s 25th Handover anniversary looked a bit more tense than Xi's behind their respective white masks with a red "25" on the side.
That is the face of John Lee, who was inaugurated Friday to take over the chair of Chief Executive from Carrie Lam, to be the effective leader of Hong Kong.
The new Chief Executive
The new chief executive is not, in fact, a new face. Lee was Hong Kong's security chief during the 2019-2020 protests, and was the key figure in pushing through the National Security Law. He now becomes Hong Kong's first ever chief executive to rise from the police forces.
Lee had gained a reputation as a security hawk
Lee had gained a reputation as a security hawk without a human touch, but after being hand-picked by Beijing, has been repackaged around his "success story" biography. The public relations pros have given him as an example of a new kind of "Hong Kong elite," who rose from the grassroots: having studied hard and married early, voted "Outstanding Father" while cracking the hardest cases during his time in the Police Force.
Some pro-establishment media even went so far as to interview Lee's former classmates and teachers, citing his "stylish hairstyle, good looks and good social skills" who "handed in all his homework."
A "patriot" popular in Beijing
But these campaigns have struggled to convince the Hong Kong public. On Facebook, a page that mocks Lee's Chinese level has 24,000 followers more than his own official campaign page. When he was sworn in as Chief Secretary of Administration, there have already been concerns about his academic qualifications, as Lee did not attend university after secondary school, and only obtained a degree through the self-studies program at the police force.
And yet, Lee must ultimately worry only about selling his image well in Beijing. Under the accorded Hong Kong Basic Law framework, Hong Kong should ”be run by Hong Kong people”, but it is a generally accepted fact that all chief executives are expected to have a pro-Beijing alignment.
With the recent social unrest, the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” was introduced by Carrie Lam, which disqualified 51 legislative council members and led to over 270 resignations in local councils, creating a major pro-establishment/pro-Beijing political landscape.
As he was already wrapped up as firmly loyal to Beijing, outgoing and devoted by nature, the swiftness of Lee’s campaign for the top job was not a surprise. China observers expect him to expand on the “legacy” of his predecessor Carrie Lam, and to effectively “mainlandize” Hong Kong's politics, with an emphasis on “development”— the most frequently used word in his manifesto.
China supporters hold People's Republic of China flags and celebrate the 25th anniversary Hong Kong handover to China.
The Greater Bay Area
In his campaign, Lee vowed over 4 broad areas: strengthening governance, expanding housing, enhancing competitiveness, building a caring and inclusive society and enhancing upward mobility for youth. One of the few novel points includes his determination to enact Hong Kong’s own security law in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law, but the legislation would undoubtedly be coordinated with Beijing.
One major highlight of the “New Hong Kong” is the Greater Bay Area (GBA) project, a closely coordinated scheme between Beijing and Lam’s administration. In a 2019 Outline Development Plan, which Xi Jinping "personally planned, deployed and promoted", the project will include the cooperation of nine cities in the Mainland Great Pearl River Delta with Hong Kong and Macao, taking forward the practice of "One Country, Two Systems."
The plan reveals Beijing’s long-term ambition in getting and keeping a firm hold of the remaking of Hong Kong, and having the dominant say in controlling Hong Kong’s prosperity. Lee was reported to be “of great interest” in the Greater Bay Area project, and stated that much of his initiatives are closely integrated with the development plan.
Carrie Lam oversaw a move for Hong Kong’s own cultural resources to be mobilized in Beijing’s own narrative under such a framework, on top of which will be Lee’s focus on history education for the younger generation, the diffusion of political campaigns in Hong Kong’s cultural sphere would be more visible in with the new administration. This comes amid reports revealing that Hong Kong's new textbooks would teach students that Hong Kong “was never a British colony.”
Turning Point in 50-year plan
Of course, the current celebrations is itself a reminder that Hong Kong was in fact a British colony. Hong Kong 25 is a watershed, as it is halfway towards 2047, the “expiry date” for the existing legal and political framework for Hong Kong’s future.
Beijing was meant to ensure the capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years.
In 1984, then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stating that after China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. Beijing would, under the principle of "one country, two systems", ensure that Hong Kong's own capitalist system and way of life would remain "unchanged for 50 years."
In such a framework, it is guaranteed that “Hong Kong people's rights and freedoms of speech, publication, assembly, association and religious beliefs” are protected, but after the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, promises were broken with Beijing's insertion of the National Security Law and an electoral reform law. Halfway through the 50-year plan, the “New Hong Kong” moves closer to Beijing every day.
With the clock ticking and the approaching 2047, the “New Hong Kong” future is now in the hands of John Lee — with Xi Jingping looking over his shoulder. Under such circumstances, as The Initium observes, it is certainly the "right thing to do" for the new administration to cater to Xi and the Beijing superiors by replaying the old tune of "One Country, Two Systems" and Greater Bay Area project, as well as fostering “patriotic history education.”
It is obvious that, under Lee's leadership, pro-establishment forces are taking control of Hong Kong's future, based on the mainland model of development and stability. The tune for the new Hong Kong seems to be destined — and it may start looking less like Hong Kong.