The sole candidate to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive told reporters Tuesday that he is a Catholic who credits his Jesuit education for his drive to “help society as a whole.”
John Lee Ka-chiu, the former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong’s government and its former Secretary for Security, made what is believed to be the first official confirmation of his religion during a press stop on Tuesday.
“I am Catholic,” he said during a brief exchange with media first reported by the South China Morning Post. “I believe in what I have been taught in my secondary school Wah Yan [Sacred Heart College], Kowloon.” Lee told journalists that he sought to live up to his old school’s motto of service and that “helping people in need” was at the center of his manifesto for election.
“I think we have to create a caring and inclusive society for everybody,” Lee said. “I am in fact practicing this principle in my manifesto and in my future governance.”
Lee is running unopposed on the ballot to lead the special administrative region’s government and is expected to succeed the current chief executive, Carrie Lam, also a Catholic.
Hong Kong’s constitutional text, called the Basic Law, provides that the chief executive be elected by the Election Committee, the 1,500 member electoral college which is supposed to be “broadly representative,” with members drawn from the political, economic, professional, and social sectors.
The same committee also elects 40 of the 90 members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, with only 20 of the council members elected by popular vote.
Although the Basic Law says that election of the chief executive should be conducted by universal suffrage as an “ultimate aim,” reforms to Hong Kong’s governance imposed by Beijing in 2021 removed directly elected seats in the legislature and strengthened the mainland government’s control on the election committee membership.
The 2021 reforms also required the vetting of all candidates for political office to ensure that only “patriots” appeared on ballots for election — resulting in pro-democracy candidates being disqualified from seeking public office.
The chief executive elections are scheduled for Saturday, May 8. Local media have reported that Hong Kong police are expected to deploy as many as 7,000 officers this weekend to deter any public demonstrations.
The South China Morning Post reported Wednesday that officers from Hong Kong police’s counter terrorism and special response units had been activated to guard infrastructure points like railway stations and other possible public gathering spots.
In a statement on Facebook, police said that they were working to “formulate contingency plans to ensure the chief executive election is held safely.”
In a televised question-and-answer session with a panel of journalists last week, Lee said that the Hong Kong administration was still working to implement fully the “only patriots” rule and that further constitutional reform towards universal suffrage “would not be a priority” during his time in office.
The electoral reforms last year followed the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law on Hong Kong by Beijing, which criminalized many forms of free speech, both by individuals and in the press, leading to the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of prominent pro-democracy activists, former legislators, and media figures, many of them Catholic.
Lee told a meeting with young people Wednesday that those jailed for pro-democracy protests in recent years should be given “a chance to reintegrate back into society after serving their sentences,” and that “the government, the public, different organizations, NGO bodies, charities and businesses are happy to offer help.”
Such individuals would include Agnes Chow, the Catholic pro-democracy activist who was released from jail in June last year after serving a six-month prison sentence for attending an “unlawful” assembly in 2019.
Chow, 25, was convicted of attending public protests against a law that would have allowed for political prisoners to be extradited to mainland China to face trial in some circumstances. Prior to her imprisonment, Chow was banned from standing in Hong Kong elections following the election reforms and accused of “sedition” under the terms of the National Security Law.
Currently in prison is Jimmy Lai, the Catholic media tycoon and former publisher of the now-closed newspaper Apple Daily.
Lai was handed a four-month sentence for attending a Christian prayer vigil in August 2019, on top of a one-year term after he pled guilty to making public statements judged to have invited foriegn interference in Hong Kong affairs by allowing his paper to highlight the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Despite the arrest and imprisonment of prominent political and media figures, Lee told Wednesday’s meeting that journalists in Hong Kong could “go about their media work” with “maximum freedom,” and blamed international actors for attempting to subvert Hong Kong’s government and society.
Lee also said that the arrests and closures of outlets were the result of “people who try to give the impression that they are doing media work, but in fact, they are pursuing political or personal purposes, which in fact has polluted press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Lee’s comments, and his resolutely pro-Beijing platform for office, compared to imprisoned Catholic pro-democracy activists highlight the divisions among the local Catholic community.
Last year, clergy in the diocese told The Pillar that “Hong Kong is not ‘one thing,’ including Catholics here.”
“Many are very pro-democracy, pro-freedom in that sense, especially the young. But many others, the older generation especially, are proudly Chinese and are very happy to support the mainland government in principle,” one local cleric said.
“In the middle are many Hong Kongers, and many Hong Kong Catholics, who are simply afraid of the situation; they see the tensions mounting and worry they will be caught between the hammer and the anvil.”
“I’m quite aware that it is not easy, given the painful damages that different parties have experienced in their own ways in the past two years,” Chow said at the time.