Word had it that soon after John Lee Ka-chiu completed his victory press conference on Sunday and exited left from the stage, emotions ran high for Hong Kong’s new chief executive-elect and tears were shed. As it was, when answering his last question at the presser, his voice trembled as he paid tribute to his wife of 42 years. Lee’s journey from chief secretary to chief executive within four weeks has been nothing short of extraordinary given how he was the only one to receive Beijing’s blessings to run and he had to cobble together a team and platform within days. He courted the Election Committee members not because they would not vote for him, but because he wanted these pro-Beijing loyalists to rally as one behind him. He courted the public not because they had any say but because their support would be vital in the coming five years. Lee became chief executive-elect on Sunday, securing 99.2 per cent, or 1,416 of 1,428 votes from the powerful Election Committee. Eight members, however, voted against him under the anonymous system. The remaining four cast blank votes. Now Lee, 64, a policeman who rose to the city’s highest office, must deliver on the pledges of change he made during his brief campaign. An insider said the whirl of emotions for Lee on Sunday came from the relief of victory but also the realisation of the enormity of the tasks in the five years ahead. All eyes will be on whether Lee will succeed in shaping a new way of running Hong Kong on the “one country, two systems” principle in place since the city returned to China in 1997, guaranteeing the former British colony a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. He takes office at the midpoint of that period, after several years of turmoil that led Beijing to be more assertive over the city’s affairs, including introducing a national security law and an electoral overhaul to ensure only “patriots” ruled Hong Kong. He has promised to boost Hong Kong’s international competitiveness, reform the civil service work culture and increase the overall supply of housing over the next five years. In his victory speech, Lee defended the election, even though the closed circle of voters – this time packed overwhelmingly with loyalists unlike before the electoral overhaul – meant he would be forever vulnerable to questions about mandate and legitimacy. He also vowed to recruit experienced, capable and passionate people to join his governing team so as to implement the policies stated in his manifesto. “The election was conducted in a very transparent and fair manner. Anybody who … qualified can take part and run for election,” he said. There were “of course, high expectations on what I will deliver”, he said. “I know that. That’s why I never underestimate the challenges that I shall be facing. That’s exactly why I think we must energise and synergise the government … We want to achieve more. We want to make one plus one greater than two. Who is John Lee, Hong Kong’s next leader? “Not just that. I want the government and the community to work together, so that this one plus the big one will be greater definitely by the greater two. That is what I intend to do. I will try my best to prove that by the actions by the government in the coming five years,” he vowed. After two devastating years of the Covid-19 pandemic and unrelenting attacks from the West on sweeping political changes made by Beijing, he must also deliver on reinstating Hong Kong’s position as a global city and financial hub. As for improving the capability of the Hong Kong government, pro-establishment figures welcomed his plan to set key performance indicators (KPI) to deliver results, but others warned that such an approach risked cutting off feedback and urged Lee to do more to engage Hongkongers and win their trust. “Lee must widen the scope for civic participation and enable the people to influence public policy … These things, with effective policies, can improve performance and trust,” said Emeritus Professor John Burns, who specialises in public administration at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Serving two masters or only one? Observers acknowledged the new leader’s unenviable position of having to serve two masters – Beijing and the people of Hong Kong – and said much depended on his ability to align the central government’s interests with those of Hongkongers. And, all this while dealing with pressure from the international community and a sense of general mistrust at home. Pro-Beijing heavyweight Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a lawmaker before and after the city’s handover, told the Post she disagreed with the narrative that Hong Kong leaders had limited room for political manoeuvring. “The assumption here is there must be conflict between the wishes of the central authorities and Hong Kong people,” said the 76-year-old, the city’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body from 2008 to 2018. “But over the years, the central authorities have only shown goodwill towards Hong Kong and hope Hong Kong can prosper. You cannot find any evidence to deny it.” She said Lee’s emergence, following the introduction of the national security law in 2020 and last year’s electoral overhaul, meant Beijing was giving the city an opportunity to reestablish itself as a global hub. “I hope this time we truly reunify with our motherland, because we were at the edge of being pushed down a cliff by destructive elements in Hong Kong,” she added, referring to the social unrest through the second half of 2019. Disagreeing, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a research professor of political science at Baptist University, argued that with Hong Kong’s electoral reforms, Lee had only one master: the Chinese Communist Party and its leader, President Xi Jinping. Hong Kong leadership race: 8 voters say ‘no’ to John Lee and 4 cast blank ballots “The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing and the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong are the real backseat drivers of Hong Kong,” he said. HKU’s Burns said the central government was now intent on establishing its hold on Hong Kong, making it hard for Lee to serve two masters. Although the principle of “one country, two systems” still survived, he said it was in a more limited form. “Hong Kong still has more autonomy than a mainland city in the management of religion, education, the media, the internet, the civil service and in the law,” Burns said. He felt the main challenge for Lee, whose term begins on July 1, was that he had “no legitimacy in the eyes of most Hongkongers” who perceived the reformed electoral system as unfair. ‘Lee can redefine Hong Kong’s role’ A career police officer before being appointed security chief, Lee was known as a hardliner who acted firmly during the 2019 anti-government protests before being promoted to chief secretary last year. He was among the first Hong Kong officials to be hit by United States sanctions for doing his job as security chief. His tough character explained why he was hand-picked by Beijing for Hong Kong’s top job, according to a senior official who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity. The official expected Lee to focus on issues related to national security, housing and land, while harnessing others to lead bureaus handling areas such as education or social welfare. “As long as he gives clear directions, he can leave the job to someone who may be more experienced in those fields,” the source said. Hong Kong to launch e-CNY pilot ‘soon after Spring Festival’ It was also important for Lee to strengthen Hong Kong’s role as a global offshore renminbi business centre to boost the internationalisation of the national currency. “That was our edge, which no other mainland cities could do,” the source added. The source said Beijing also wanted to avoid having Hong Kong become a “troublemaker” in a complicated international geopolitical situation. “It is clear that Washington does not want much to restore peace, as can be seen from its recent approach on the Russia-Ukraine war and on Taiwan. So Beijing is already very busy,” the source said. Political commentator Lau Siu-kai, from the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank, agreed that the ongoing war and Covid-19 pandemic hampered Hong Kong’s development as an international city after decades of close ties with the United States. Given the superpower conflicts, he felt Hong Kong’s role as a bridge between China and the West would become unsustainable. “It’s time for Lee to redefine the ‘international competitiveness’ that Hong Kong aims to boost,” he said. “The future development strategy should be shifted to maintain limited ties with Western countries and strengthen connections with mainland China, Asean and the Belt and Road countries,” he said. Questions about the ‘KPI approach’ Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, said it was pragmatic of Lee to make “improving government capabilities” one of his key pledges. This gave him room to make changes, from inviting mainland experts to join the government’s policy research unit to designing courses to equip civil servants with a more international outlook. “Senior officials promoted through the ranks generally lack political training, while those appointed to the government find it difficult to integrate into the bureaucracy. Lee can do something to close the gap,” Fung said. Observers also noted Lee’s pledge to set KPIs for accomplishing tasks within the first 100 days of his new administration. Vera Yuen Wing-han, a lecturer at HKU’s faculty of business and economics, recalled that the city’s first leader, Tung Chee-hwa, had set specific targets for public housing and home ownership, only to have them left unmet in the decades that followed. “The problem with the government is not that it has lacked goals, but that it is short of an effective accountability mechanism to ensure processes stay on track,” she said. While setting practical, quantifiable goals was important in motivating employees, she felt the KPI approach had possible downsides as it could discourage feedback and some officials might stop at nothing to achieve their targets. Engage the public to build trust The question is whether Lee can win over Hongkongers by delivering on his promises and producing results. Scholars have long argued that, rather than relying on repression alone, authoritarian regimes use their success in achieving concrete growth and development targets to gain acceptance of their rule. “Targets set by the Chinese government are often very solid, and executable through the various tiers of agencies,” said HKU’s Yuen. “But sometimes, the feedback mechanism is questionable in this top-down approach.” Singapore ’s dominant ruling party is also known to have endured by relying on performance despite an authoritarian approach. Political commentator Eugene Tan, a law don and former nominated member of parliament in Singapore, said the ruling People’s Action Party had secured a strong electoral mandate in every general election since independence in 1965 and, despite its dominance, had allowed competition in politics. In the last general election in July 2020, all seats were contested. “There is no lack of choice for Singaporean voters,” he said. “What you don’t want is a deficit, or worse, a crisis of consensus that often arises when stakeholders have no choice or limited voice. “In such a scenario, you will have lots of pent-up anger searching for an escape valve leading to legitimate and – of greater concern – illegitimate ways of challenging the system.” Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore, said what set Singapore apart from Hong Kong was that the city state still had a “meaningful opposition voice” in the legislative process, even if that rarely translated into policy changes. He described the situation in Hong Kong as “a virtual appointment given official endorsement from Beijing”, adding that the lack of electoral competition might result in lingering questions about legitimacy. “Hong Kong’s framework for governance does not appear to give much leeway for the chief executive to depart from Beijing’s preferences,” he said. Tan said it was never enough to have “capable and committed men and women in the corridors of power”. “Regardless of the political system, the leader has to engage the people so that the policies and laws will secure a strong buy-in from the people. Ultimately, people want meaningful changes for the better and they need to have the power of agency – in other words, they are the raison d’être for the change,” he said. Hong Kong civil servants brace for shake-up under John Lee’s reform But Cabestan, from Baptist University, remained pessimistic about Chief Executive-elect Lee’s ability to establish trust with Hongkongers. “Trust comes from a direct relationship between the citizens and their elected representatives,” he said. “What is the role of citizens in today’s Hong Kong political system? Close to zero.” HKU’s Burns suggested expanding civic participation to mitigate against the perception of a lack of mandate in the eyes of ordinary residents. “Effective governance requires collaboration with the community, and the improved performance that John Lee seeks needs the active cooperation of the people of Hong Kong,” he said. ‘Democracy with Hong Kong characteristics’: Beijing hails leadership poll At the presser on Sunday, apart from promising to work together with the community, Lee also said he would strive hard to win over the few who voted against him. “I will try my best to further convince whoever disagrees with me because it is my duty to let people understand what I can do to them,” he said. “But I do understand there will be a time that is needed for me to convince people. I can do that by actions so when they see results, they somehow will know at least ‘he’s trying his best’. “I hope that by accumulating successes after another success, then I can get them … be convinced that what I am trying to do is for the best of Hong Kong. I will keep doing that.” Throughout his campaign, he had also vowed to create a sense of togetherness in society, going from “us versus them” to “we and us”. Perhaps, as an insider indicated, Lee’s emotions on Sunday had as much to do with finishing the race as starting a new one, to cross that chasm.