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Hardliners the new darling, elite bureaucrats sidelined

This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:武進文退 鐵腕治港

The reshuffle of cabinet endorsed by Beijing has made headline over the last week. Chief secretary Matthew Cheung is succeeded by secretary for security John Lee, while police chief Chris Tang is promoted to become the next secretary for security. Tang’s current deputy Raymond Siu will become the next commissioner of police. This reshuffle was described by many as the “rise of disciplinary forces with bureaucrats sidelined”, reflecting Beijing's strong will to depart from conventional team of governance lead by administrative officers or business leaders, and build around a new team coming from national security and law enforcement background, reflecting Beijing’s strong will to continue its crackdown on Hong Kong.

John Lee (second on the left) was appointed as the No.2 official in Carrie Lam's cabinet. AP Photo

The controversy behind Lee’s promotion to the No. 2 position in the government are three-folded.

Firstly, there is only one year left in Carrie Lam’s administration. Objectively, there is little need for change. Although Matthew Cheung has madeno significant contribution, neither did he commit major mistakes. Known for being hardworking, Cheung largely enjoyed good reputation among colleagues and community at large. The abrupt stop from serving a full term of five year goes against the convention in the government.

Further, Lee’s appointment by Beijing surprises many. That is largely because Lee’s upbringing and resume fell short what one would normally expect from “elites” tasked with governing the city. He has not received proper university education but joined the police after graduating from high school, then making his way to deputy police chief through years of hard work, but has not reached the top seat as the the commissioner. He then become an undersecretary of security under then secretary Lai Tung-kwok, who was once the director of immigration. Lee was promoted to the secretary for security in 2017. It was difficult to name any achievement, but Lee was best remembered for his failed attempt to push through extradition bill that eventually triggered massive social movements. It was only natural to doubt such abrupt promotion to become the second most senior official in the rank.

Thirdly, past secretaries were usually high-flyers with likes of Anson Chan, Donald Tsang and Carrie Lam, with the exception of businessman Henry Tang, who first joined as a minister overseeing commerce and later the financial secretary before promotion to chief secretary. Matthew Cheung and his predecessor Stephen Lam at least have the credentials on paper on leading departments and policymaking, after spending decades in the government. This is despite they were somewhat the lucky pick when their predecessors resigned to run for the chief executive.

The public was hard to swallow Lee’s promotion, given his expertise was limited to security and law enforcement. If the head of security of any major corporation was suddenly elevated to become the chief operating officer, any reasonable person will be able to tell the deviation from normal practices.

For all of these reasons, there are clearly better candidates than Lee from within the government, with little basis to justify the promotion. But Beijing deliberately ignored that and deliberately made the stunning appointment.

The political implications are worth noticing.

As a start, Beijing’s hardline crackdown in Hong Kong is far from over. Ever since the introduction of National Security Law since July 2020, Hong Kong’s legal and political landscape has been drastically transformed. Human rights and freedom suffered major setback, police’s unchecked power vastly expanded. Hong Kong moves closer to a “police state”. Not only suffering citizens left for good, business and finance sectors were caught in the bewilderment of Western sanctions versus pressure from Beijing. Many have been eyeing on “breathing space” for Beijing to relax its grip over Hong Kong, after opposition figures arrested, electoral systems were “improved,” and Beijing may claim “chaos was stored and order was restored”. Lee’s appointment essentially crushed that hope. Beijing has rewarded Lee and Chris Tang for “quelling the chaos” and their emboldened hardline approach against protesters. Their promotion is effectively an encouragement to the rest of the SAR administration to use the National Security Law and carry on with the struggle.

The crackdown on the ideological front will also be extended to all aspects of people’s lives. Education, healthcare, social welfare and home affairs are within remit of the chief secretary. Lee, who has zero experience in these areas, are effectively tasked by Beijing to implement Beijing’s new blueprint, or the comprehensive jurisdiction, and the party’s directives on all policy areas, to ensure all civil servants are subservient to Central Government’s order.

In fact, within just one year since the National Security Law was promulgated, SAR government has overhauled many areas internally with a clear sense of political mission, including purge of RTHK journalists and teachers, rewriting school curriculum, and removing books from library shelves. These may well continue during Lee’s term to cover healthcare, social welfare and district administration. Lee told media that the National Security Law has operated well in its first year, and the risk of national security has reduced. “Many activists have fled Hong Kong, and those with intelligence background no longer appear in the city,” he said during the interview. But one should guarded against the promotion of independence via “soft infiltration”, or the media, art or drama, he added. This inadvertently revealed the future direction and focus of Lee’s work as the new No. 2 official.

Thirdly, officials coming from disciplinary forces now take the lead over conventional civil service team. Conventionally, administrative officers (AO) forms the backbone of Hong Kong government. The current chief executive Carrie Lam is an AO herself. Even the successors she has handpicked, such as Edward Yau and Patrick Nip are also AOs.

At the beginning of Lam’s term, there was speculation that Matthew Cheung was not her preferred deputy, and she wanted to replace him with a more capable person half way through the term. While the rumours of either Nip or Erick Tsang replacing Cheung were still swirling around, Lee’s appointment took many AOs by surprise. From their perspective, they were not trusted by Beijing and their colleagues coming from disciplinary forces were instead blessed and handpicked by Beijing to take up key positions. Those from the forces are known to be more obedient to orders and ready to use tough measures. They also received political training from the Central Government, worked closely in enforcement of national security, and better fit the Beijing’s appetite than conventional elite bureaucrats involved in livelihood or economic policy.

The appointment of Erick Tsang, previously the director of immigration, as the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, sends a clear warning that AOs are being replaced. Cheung’s replacement by Lee further confirmed the signal - No matter who is the next chief executive, the likes of Chris Tsang and Erick Tsang will most certainly play a key role in the next cabinet.

Beijing has also signalled the rejection of Lam’s preferred candidates from AO stream, causing a lot of grievances in Lam's camp. It has also upset former chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s camp, who is tipped to compete with Lam for the top post. Once Cheung leaves, financial secretary Paul Chan, who was promoted during Leung’s time, was supposed to be the most qualified to succeed Cheung. It would have given Leung’s camp a boost to challenge Lam and replace her team. But Beijing has broken rank to pick Lee, which adds uncertainty to the CE election to be held in March next year. Neither Lam and Leung’s camps enjoyed advantage. The rise of officials from forces promoted become the headache as they become the third major camp in the cabinet. Beijing was not seen to have taken a stance at this juncture. The infightings between both camps and struggle within political circle for Beijing’s blessings are only here to stay, at least for now.