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The place the Language of Democracy Is a Cowl

On Friday afternoon, supporters of John Lee gathered for what his adviser described as a preelection rally, a last push in Lee’s marketing campaign to safe victory within the election to be Hong Kong’s subsequent chief government.

Don’t let the vocabulary idiot you. No members of most people attended Lee’s occasion, a stage-managed flourish to a weeks-long present masquerading as a contest. He didn’t truly must win them over; he wanted solely the help of simply over 750 vetted Beijing loyalists in a metropolis of some 7.5 million. In any occasion, he ran unopposed and right this moment, the day of the “vote,” he’ll win.

Like many Hong Kong establishments which are being hollowed out to suit the wants of the town’s new political regime, a excessive significance has been positioned on maintaining appearances surrounding the election. Although Hong Kong has by no means had full democracy and the choice for the chief government, the town’s high job, has all the time been the realm of a selected few, this yr is much more restricted. Thus, Lee and the Hong Kong authorities have spent the previous few weeks partaking in an elaborate charade to make sure that his elevation maintained a patina of legitimacy.

On most days, Lee, the previous No. 2 official within the authorities, would meet with quite a lot of pro-Beijing curiosity teams and hand-selected metropolis residents, with readouts and posed photographs shortly uploaded to his social-media platforms. A couple of occasions every week, he would descend from his marketing campaign workplace in Central Plaza, a high-rise awash in early-Nineteen Nineties gaudiness within the downtown Wan Chai neighborhood, through a gold-accented escalator into the constructing’s foyer, the place a small gaggle of journalists would ask him questions and snap photos.

Throughout one latest briefing I attended, he was troublesome to listen to over the din within the marble foyer, the place workplace staff went about their day, with just a few stopping to pay attention to Lee’s presence. A supply driver nonetheless sporting his bike helmet got here down the escalator as Lee was talking and continued tapping his telephone, seemingly unaware of the longer term metropolis chief. The federal government, in the meantime, has carried on as if it had been making ready to carry a standard election, issuing releases and organizing press conferences, detailing its work readying to gather and tally what might be fewer than 1,500 ballots. The town’s anti-corruption watchdog is sending 80 screens to observe the polls. To not be outdone, police say they are going to deploy as much as 7,000 officers to make sure that issues run easily. At Friday’s rally, supporters received onstage in teams of three, taking turns to lavish Lee with reward whereas he sat within the viewers wanting on.

Over the course of the “marketing campaign,” Lee’s interactions with most people have been almost nonexistent. As an alternative, one after the other over the previous few weeks, Hong Kong’s elite—getting old tycoons, lecturers, and businesspeople—have pledged their help for Lee. These most desperate to curry favor with the soon-to-be chief hurried to his marketing campaign headquarters early within the choice train, posing outdoors his workplace in entrance of a cerulean poster that includes the town skyline. Lee typically stood subsequent to them, his face usually contorted in a pained smile and his outstretched arm flashing a thumbs-up. He didn’t but have a platform or any detailed insurance policies. That didn’t matter. (Lee’s skinny manifesto was launched solely 9 days earlier than the vote.) Lee’s cadence of speech is peculiar and prodding, and all through the marketing campaign, he was neither charismatic nor significantly smitten by his anointed position. That didn’t matter both. As an alternative, when Lee spoke, he projected the arrogance of an unprepared job applicant who’d fudged his résumé and unexpectedly landed an undeserved interview, continually trotting out the road that he can be “outcomes oriented.” That—you seemingly guessed—didn’t matter in any respect.

What did matter—the one factor that ever mattered—was that Lee had the backing of Beijing.

Eager to have a clean and wholly uncompetitive election, Beijing’s officers in Hong Kong made it clear from the beginning that Lee was the one possibility. He’d beforehand headed the vetting committee for the town’s legislature, personally making certain that every one candidates, together with those that are among the many choose few who can solid ballots this time round, had been sufficiently loyal and “patriotic.” If elections are horse races, Lee’s is a dressage present of 1—involving a single candidate obediently dancing a tightly choreographed routine in entrance of a panel of judges.

One of many solely elements of Lee’s choice course of that has resembled a democracy has been the bare jockeying by these keen to attain factors and maybe positions in his administration. Most of the folks providing effusive reward to Lee had been just a few weeks in the past infuriated by the federal government’s inept dealing with of Hong Kong’s newest pandemic wave, which has left our bodies piled in hospitals and frail, aged sufferers mendacity outdoors them. Judy Chan, a lawmaker from the pro-Beijing New Folks’s Occasion, was extremely crucial of the Hong Kong authorities’s pandemic response. “I don’t suppose the federal government had any preparation for this,” she advised me in late February, across the time when Hong Kong had the best COVID-19 fatality fee on the planet. Chan laughed once I requested her if she thought Chinese language President Xi Jinping—Lee’s final boss—was proud of the town’s actions. “In fact, not so happy,” she stated. However, her celebration met with Lee final month and, after a brief dialogue, pledged its help.

Certainly, Lee’s ascendance to the publish of chief government has been such a foregone conclusion that it’s extra fascinating to ask why he would need the job in any respect. (There was a energetic debate on-line over what precisely to name his marketing campaign and election, given the weird circumstances.) Since Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, 4 folks have held the publish, and all 4 struggled immensely with the duty of balancing the needs and desires of Hong Kongers with the calls for of Beijing. The primary stepped down after monumental protests. The subsequent landed in jail after his time period completed. The one which adopted was deeply disliked, triggered much more protests, and was not allowed to run once more, giving strategy to the present chief government, Carrie Lam. Her stubbornness and egotism helped kick-start and delay the huge prodemocracy protests of 2019. These set in movement lots of the modifications which have swept Hong Kong, most notably Beijing’s imposition of a draconian national-security regulation in 2020. When Lam leaves workplace in a few months and formally palms the reins to Lee, Hong Kong might be drastically much less free, much less democratic, much less open, and extra just like the mainland than when she started her time period.

Lee, a former police officer, served because the secretary for safety through the 2019 protests, overseeing the response from police that left the pressure’s fame in tatters and fueled big public anger. Lee was then promoted to chief secretary for administration, the town’s No. 2 place. His identify started to floor earlier this yr as a critical contender for chief government, initially talked about alongside a handful of others, together with the monetary secretary, Paul Chan; the previous police commissioner Chris Tang; and the earlier head of the World Well being Group, Margaret Chan. Lee’s safety background at a time when Beijing feels threatened on a number of fronts, and his lack of private connections to the town’s ultra-wealthy energy brokers, seems to have made him fascinating in Beijing’s eyes.

His marketing campaign has attracted minimal curiosity from the general public, and, maybe because of this, he has managed to keep away from making a lot actual information in any respect. There are just a few banners along with his face across the metropolis. Some posters hanging in subway stations remind folks—nearly all of whom will not be eligible to vote—that Might 8 is “Chief Government Election Polling Day.” Protection of the primary day of his marketing campaign was largely pushed off the entrance pages by the arrest of a longtime journalist. Opposition figures who up to now could have questioned or prodded Lee are virtually all in jail or have retreated from politics. Essentially the most consideration he has garnered was when YouTube shut down his channel, citing concern over U.S. sanctions: Like Lam, Lee was sanctioned for his position in placing down the 2019 demonstrations and for the actions that adopted.

A former pro-Beijing lawmaker concerned in previous chief-executive elections advised me that he noticed the present choice course of as a return to Hong Kong’s colonial rule, a interval throughout which a governor was appointed from London with no say from the native inhabitants. “In these days, they only despatched a governor over, and these days they only have one candidate, and that’s the most popular candidate of Beijing,” he advised me, talking on situation of anonymity due to the present political local weather. Hong Kong’s reengineered legislature, now devoid of opposition, would work to help Lee, as a result of lawmakers know that he speaks immediately for Beijing. “I might truly name this,” he stated, “merely an appointment system.”

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