The job of Hong Kong’s chief executive never seems to end well for its holder. Will John Lee Ka-chiu, the chief secretary who is now a strong contender for the top post, fare any better? Tung Chee-hwa, the city’s first post-handover leader, quit during his second term, citing health reasons. His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, ended up in jail after leaving office. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, didn’t bother to run for a second term. Now, Lam is following in his footsteps. The job of a middle-level manager, which is what the post really entails, is a thankless one: bosses above (Beijing) and those below (Hong Kong public) have different agendas and expectations. You can’t please one without upsetting the other, and you end up displeasing everyone. Lam’s announcement came as no surprise. Having failed rather spectacularly with two of the biggest crises the city has ever faced – the 2019 unrest and the latest Omicron outbreak, Lam had openly hinted she wanted to go. The choice of Lee, assuming he is the one Beijing wants, is an interesting one. As the security chief during the 2019 anti-government protests, he and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah were consistently the least popular principal government officials, or rather, to put it more harshly, the most hated by the opposition and its supporters. While they were the bad cops, Lam was, if not the good cop, then at least the less bad cop. Given his tenure, Lee is, of course, as responsible as anyone in government for the series of public fiascos. But Beijing is happy to let Lam take the rap. On the strength of his security portfolio – he was previously a senior police officer – Lee has enjoyed a most unusual meteoric rise, moving from law enforcement to top civilian jobs. Within the local government, those in administration have always been privileged over their counterparts in security and law enforcement for the most senior posts. That colonial tradition looks set to be broken. When he took over as chief secretary, Lee even admitted he lacked experience in civil administration, and Lam, perhaps sarcastically, once said she would help him while he could concentrate on issues related to security. If so, why move him into the top civilian job, if not to groom him as a potential chief executive? Now that the previous democratic or electoral apparatus has been dismantled, the central government no longer needs to worry too much about the personal or popular appeal of the next chief executive. In fact, Lee may well be seen as a provocation, a rude reminder that the opposition bloc has been completely neutralised. In the escalating fight between Beijing and Washington, Hong Kong has been caught in the middle. Lam, Lee and Cheng have all been sanctioned by the United States. In the eyes of Beijing, though, that might even be a credit to Lee and Cheng. For the city, it’s now all about national security, all the time. And who better personifies national security than John Lee?