Hong Kong’s John Lee is ‘untested’ in areas other than security: consultant

Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive John Lee has focused on security throughout his career and is largely “untested” in other areas, according to the CEO of a consultancy.

“He’s a blank sheet of paper for most people in the community. That gives him flexibility, I think,” said David Dodwell of Strategic Access.

“But it means that how he’s going to manage is perhaps more uncertain … than any leadership we’ve had in the past 25 years,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Monday.

Lee, a Beijing loyalist and the only candidate for Hong Kong’s top post, won the vast majority of votes in Sunday’s election.

“His lifetime has been devoted to security issues, first in the police force and then as security secretary here in Hong Kong. He’s by and large untested and unknown, for that matter, in any other areas,” said Dodwell.

The way Lee governs Hong Kong will depend on the team that’s assembled around him, he added.

Michael Tien, a Hong Kong lawmaker, who said he voted for Lee in Sunday’s election, told CNBC the next chief executive’s narrow experience could be a good thing.

“The weakness that people perceive in John Lee is that he’s only been in security and seems to have very little experience in any other areas of public governance,” he told CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Monday.

“On the other hand, it could also be a strength if he can turn that [around] and be open minded by listening to others,” Tien said.

Sunday’s vote

Hong Kong’s government said Sunday that 1,416 members of the largely pro-Beijing election committee voted for Lee. Some 1,428 votes were cast in the secret ballot — which gave Lee more than 99% of the votes.

Lee will begin his five-year term on July 1, taking over from incumbent chief executive Carrie Lam.

Hong Kong is a special administration region of China governed under the “one country, two systems” framework. The city has limited election rights and its legal and economic system is largely separate from the mainland.

Last year, Hong Kong’s electoral system went through a major reform, and Beijing said only so-called “patriots” should be allowed to run the city.

“It’s a big stretch” to describe Hong Kong’s vote as a “genuine election” when comparing it to the Philippines’ election, Dodwell said.

The Philippines held its presidential election on Monday where more than 67 million voters registered to participate. In comparison, Hong Kong’s election committee has about 1,500 members who could participate in Sunday’s vote.

The people who cast votes are “carefully filtered as patriotic supporters of the government,” and the outcome is “hardly surprising,” he said.

Tien said the system in Hong Kong is “pretty much the same format as on the mainland” now, but said the number of opposing votes matters.

“If you collect surprisingly high opposition votes, that means you’re not doing a good job,” he said.

The eight votes against Lee show that there are people who are still unsure about him, Tien said, adding that it’s something Lee should take note of.

Both the European Union and the G-7 foreign ministers also issued statements criticizing the process of selecting Lee as chief executive.

In response, a Hong Kong government spokesman said those comments were “misleading” and are a “blatant interference into the internal affairs” of the city.

“Any allegation that the improved electoral system has weakened democracy in the governance of Hong Kong is misguided,” the press release said.

Challenges ahead

Dodwell said the new leader will have to address the divisions that sit “at the heart of Hong Kong,” which haven’t gone away.

The past few years have been politically turbulent in Hong Kong, especially in 2019 when pro-democracy protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill turned violent.

China passed a national security law for Hong Kong in 2020. The law is meant to prohibit secession, subversion of state power, terrorism activities and foreign interference, according to Lam. The U.S. and U.K., however, said the legislation would undermine the city’s autonomy.

In Hong Kong, the perception of coming out, reaching out, shaking hands and listening to the mass is important, particularly when it’s a one-person race …

Michael Tien

Hong Kong lawmaker

“We have, structurally, a very divided community between those that feel fiercely patriotic and those who feel anxious about the loss of various institutional protections,” he said.

Dodwell also said Hong Kong’s previous leaders failed to tackle “core social issues” in the city such as jobs and housing.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why John Lee is saying he’s going to lead a result-oriented administration. People are going to expect for some very specific achievements and very soon,” he said.

Tien said Lee should “come out and get close to the people and the crowd,” which Lam failed to do in recent years.

“In Hong Kong, the perception of coming out, reaching out, shaking hands and listening to the mass is important, particularly when it’s a one-person race and the result is pretty much guaranteed,” said Tien.

In remarks to the media after Sunday’s vote, Lee said that in the past month, he’s met many people, including members of the public, and received tens of thousands of messages and suggestions.

They have “deepened my understanding of various problems our society is facing, and how people hope the government can do more,” he added.