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A look at Hong Kong's new leader, John Lee — and his history with the territory

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Hong Kong's chief executive-elect, John Lee, is something new for the Chinese territory. He's a former beat cop who rose through the ranks and found himself in the right place at the right time. When he takes office in July, he faces a steep challenge - governing a deeply divided and mistrustful city while keeping his bosses in Beijing happy. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: John Lee was the only candidate supported by the Chinese government and faced no opposition in Sunday's small-circle election. In remarks after winning, he vowed to start a new chapter for the city and nodded in the direction of a potential obstacle.

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JOHN LEE: I do understand there will be a time that is needed for me to convince the people, but I can do that by action.

RUWITCH: Lee rose quickly from obscurity. He shifted from policing into government work in 2012 as undersecretary for security, and he kept a fairly low profile, according to Kim-wah Chung of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

KIM-WAH CHUNG: He was always behind the scenes. He did not come out to speak up for the government. Just no one aware of his existence.

RUWITCH: In 2017, he became Hong Kong's top security official. And then, two years later, everything would change on his watch. In early 2019, the government sent an extradition bill to LegCo, the city's parliament. The bill would have allowed the Hong Kong government to send criminal suspects to stand trial in China, where the judicial system is subject to Communist Party control. It would have been a monumental change.

DENNIS KWOK: And I remember looking at that LegCo brief where they raised the extradition thing for the first time, and I just cannot believe that this is even being raised.

RUWITCH: Dennis Kwok was a senior lawmaker with the pro-democracy opposition at the time. He now lives in exile in the U.S.

KWOK: And so I called him up right away and asked him to come over to LegCo in a private meeting. And I told him, John, this is crazy. You cannot do this.

RUWITCH: He told Lee that it would create a huge political rift, but Lee wasn't moved.

KWOK: He just shrugged it off. He just think that this is another sort of standard democrat response to anything to do with the mainland.

RUWITCH: As Kwok had predicted, the extradition plan sparked anger and led to the biggest street protests in Hong Kong's history.

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RUWITCH: By the fall, the demonstrations had turned violent, with Molotov cocktails and bricks answered by volleys of tear gas from police.

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RUWITCH: In response, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong in mid-2020. And John Lee, as the city's top security official, oversaw its implementation. Dozens of opposition politicians were arrested and media outlets closed. Lee landed on a U.S. government sanctions list, but the hardline approach won praise from Beijing. Still, the turmoil left an indelible mark on the former British colony that had been promised a high degree of autonomy when it was given back to China.

RONNY TONG: After 2019, the main difficulty that we now face is nobody trusts anybody else.

RUWITCH: Ronny Tong is a cabinet member and former legislator.

TONG: Beijing doesn't trust anybody in Hong Kong. Some people in Hong Kong don't trust Beijing either. And it would be up to John to hopefully have some quick results to deliver, and his major job would be to win back the trust of the people of Hong Kong.

RUWITCH: That could be tough, though, says Kim-wah Chung, the pollster.

CHUNG: His image have been so poor in the past few years. I don't think he could have any honeymoon period for Hong Kong people.

RUWITCH: Winning them over will be an uphill climb, but ultimately, Beijing's support for Lee may be what matters most.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.