John Lee: The former Hong Kong cop whom Beijing trusts

Mr Lee's elevation to Chief Executive caps a remarkable rise from the working class to Hong Kong's upper echelons. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (AFP) - Mr John Lee, a former beat cop who became Hong Kong's security chief and played a key role in suppressing democracy protests, became the business hub's new leader on Friday (July 1) in a ceremony overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"It is the greatest honour for me today to shoulder this historic mission given to me by the central authorities and the people of Hong Kong," Mr Lee said in his inauguration speech, thanking Beijing for its support.

Mr Lee, 64, was picked as Hong Kong's next chief executive by a small committee in May, winning 99 per cent of the votes in a race in which no other candidates stood.

His elevation caps a remarkable rise for a man whose police career lifted him from a working-class family to the upper echelons of Hong Kong's political establishment.

It also places a security official in the city's top job for the first time, a man who was pivotal in putting an end to the huge democracy protests in 2019 and Beijing's subsequent political crackdown.

Insiders say Mr Lee's unwavering commitment to that role won China's confidence at a time when other Hong Kong elite were seen as insufficiently loyal or competent.

"John Lee is the one that the central government knows the best, because he was in constant contact and interaction with the mainland," pro-establishment lawmaker and prominent business figure Michael Tien told AFP earlier this year.

Mr Lee, who is under United States sanctions, spent 35 years in the police force before jumping to the government in 2012, followed by a swift rise to the top.

Law and order remained his portfolio, with him serving in the Security Bureau and then leading it before becoming the city's No. 2 official last year.

Mr Lee, a Catholic, grew up poor in Sham Shui Po - one of wealthy Hong Kong's working-class districts - but made his way to an elite boys' school run by Jesuits.

Mr Peter Lai, a former banker and classmate, described him as a clever and fashionable teenager who grew long hair and wore flared trousers.

Most of his contemporaries went to university, but Mr Lee turned down an offer to study engineering to join the police force.

He later told a pro-Beijing newspaper that being bullied by neighbourhood hooligans when he was young had motivated him to join the force.

Two former classmates gave a more practical reason - the police force offered a stable career for Mr Lee and his pregnant wife Janet.

Mr Lee has not spoken much about his family and has dodged questions about whether his wife and two sons still hold British nationality, something he renounced when he joined the government.

As events began on Friday morning, Mr Lee's new social media accounts posted a picture of his wife fixing his tie, thanking her for "silently supporting me and taking care of the family over the years".

Given his security background, it seems unlikely Mr Lee will reverse Beijing's campaign against dissent.

Where he will enter less familiar territory is the world of business.

Hong Kong, once a vibrant, multicultural business hub, has been cut off internationally during the Covid-19 pandemic as it shadows Beijing's strict zero-Covid strategy.

The city's economy is struggling and there has been an exodus of talent.

Said Mr Danny Lau, a small business association leader: "I hope he can consider Hong Kong's international competitiveness and does not waste time on making laws unhelpful for the city's economy."

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