Hong Kong’s leader-in-waiting John Lee has officially been appointed as the sixth-term chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) after receiving his appointment letter from second-ranked leader and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his four-day trip to Beijing late last month.
During the trip, Lee also met Chinese President Xi Jinping who praised him for defending national security and expressed confidence in the city’s next chief’s ability to take Hong Kong to new heights.
Lee is scheduled to assume office on July 1, which marks the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule and the halfway point of its “One Country, Two Systems” political model, which originally aimed to safeguard the city’s freedoms and way of life for at least 50 years. As he prepares to take up the top job next month, there are five major challenges awaiting the 64-year-old chief executive-elect.
Healing a divided society
One of the biggest challenges facing Lee is how to heal and repair social divisions after the massive and violent anti-government protests in 2019, which have left many people in the city disappointed, upset, frustrated, and angry. David Dodwell, chief executive of Strategic Access, said the new leader must deal with the divisions that sit “at the heart of Hong Kong,” which have not gone away.
Lee has vowed to repair ties with the younger generation and the anti-government camp by “using his actions to persuade them and win their trust”. In his election manifesto, Lee also put forward the notion of “young people are our future” as he seeks to regain the youth’s trust. However, it will be a challenging task for Lee who is most remembered for his prior role as former security chief in suppressing the 2019 anti-government protests and implementing the controversial national security law imposed by Beijing. The national security law has caused concerns among people in the city to a certain extent, as they feared the law would curb many freedoms granted to them.
While it remains a significant challenge for Lee to curb dissent, his new administration must make continuous efforts to heal the social divide and unite all sectors of society in the city in order to forge ahead as a whole.
Enhancing the sense of patriotism and national identity
Strengthening patriotic education and national identity in Hong Kong, especially among youths, also poses a great challenge to Lee who is praised as a “firm patriot” by Xi. The city’s national education has always faced resistance since returning to mainland China. For instance, in 2012, tens of thousands of people took to the street to protest the implementation of the national education in the city as many Hong Kong parents, students and teachers feared that it would “brainwash” impressionable young minds with pro-mainland-Chinese propaganda.
According to a survey by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) in 2021, more than 70% of respondents aged 18 and above identified themselves as “Hongkongers” while 26% identified themselves as “Chinese”.
In recent years, the city has implemented patriotic education in schools, such as launching courses related to national security and requiring schools to hold weekly flag-raising ceremonies. The move was described by critics as ‘indoctrination’, ‘dangerous’, and ‘ineffective’. It remains a challenging task for Lee to enhance the national identity among young Hongkongers as they could be misled by some external forces attempting to distort the curriculum of patriotic education in the city.
Solving the housing crisis
The housing crisis in the city is yet another pressing challenge Lee is going to face as he takes up the top job on July 1. The Asian financial hub, home to 7.5 million people, has consistently been named the most expensive city in the world when it comes to renting a luxury apartment or buying a house.
According to a recent study by ECA International, the city has once again maintained its position as the most expensive location in the world. This year, the city also remained the world’s least affordable housing market for the 12th consecutive year, according to a survey by Demographia.
Lee has pledged to make the city’s housing crisis a top priority. In his election manifesto, Lee said he would set up a “Task Force on Public Housing Projects” and a “Steering Committee on Land and Housing Supply” to speed up construction and develop private lands.
“All chief executives pledged to solve housing and livelihood issues when they came in. In the end, the problem of inequality and unaffordable housing continued to worsen,” said Hung Ho-fung, a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University. It remains to be seen whether Lee will be able to address the deep-seated housing problem more effectively and successfully than his predecessors.
Reviving the economy
As Hong Kong emerges from more than two years of political crackdowns and strict pandemic measures, Lee will face the challenge of reviving the city’s battered economy which contracted 4% in the first quarter of 2022, one of its worst performances in the past 30 years.
To revive the city’s economy, Lee must relax border control measures to reconnect the city with the world. But Lee will be in a dilemma to balance between restoring cross-border travel with the mainland, which requires zero-Covid, and reopening internationally.
Given his extensive background in policing and security, critics have pointed out that Lee lacks the experience of his predecessors in handling financial and economic affairs. Tara Joseph, former president of the city’s American Chamber of Commerce, said Lee would be the first leader of the city who does not have much experience in business or managing an economy.
“Hong Kong has a lot of working to do in regaining the respect and admiration of the international business community, and it desperately needs to revive its economy,” she told the South China Morning Post, “so it will be interesting to see how a security-focused leader handles this.”
Recreating the image of Asia’s world city
Hong Kong has long been recognized as “Asia’s world city” that has built its reputation as a global financial and trading centre on the doorstep of China while maintaining its key freedoms and autonomy. However, the city’s global standing has taken a hit in recent years, especially after a series of traumatic events such as the 2019 social unrest, the passing of the controversial national security law, and the government’s handling of the pandemic. Some people in the city have even feared that the city will lose its competitive advantages to Shenzhen, China’s southern tech and economic powerhouse.
“It is one of John Lee’s major challenges to keep Hong Kong’s status as a financial center and global metropolis,” said Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy. In his policy plan, Lee vowed to repair Hong Kong’s standing as a global financial hub and bolster its competitiveness. To restore the city’s global status, it requires the opening of borders with the mainland and the rest of the world.
But Lee will still face the challenge of restoring business confidence after the city’s recent political turbulence and in the wake of current stringent quarantine measures. The city’s next chief will have to restore public trust in government and maintain the city’s stability and prosperity in order to increase the city’s global competitiveness in the foreseeable future.