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John Lee: A man for extraordinary times

A quiet but intense battle for power in this region is already long advanced. Dramatic recent moves in South Korea and Taiwan are the most recent plays by the United States. Hong Kong needs strong leadership, says academic and commentator CK Yeung.

IN ORDINARY TIMES, Hong Kong does not need John Lee. In extraordinary times, it does. Beijing’s choice of John Lee to lead Hong Kong reflects its assessment that the next five years will be no ordinary time.

A few key events during the lead-up to Beijing’s decision help tell us why, and what we ought to do.

Nine days before Lee resigned as Chief Secretary to run for chief executive election, the US Senate passed the “the US Competition Act”.  To me, it should have been called “the US Battle Plan Act”, for it sets out a 360-degree mobilization against China. On the same day, US President Biden unveiled the 2023 budget that seeks the biggest military spending ever seen in human history. 


Four weeks before Lee’s announcement to run for election, the US used its extensive influence in Korea to get a US yes-man elected as its new President. That upended China’s geopolitical environment. Even before taking office, Mr Yoon Suk-yeol openly advocated letting the US deploy strategic weapons in Korea, including nuclear bombers and aircraft carriers. What does this mean for China and Hong Kong?

Five years ago in March 2017 Korea began deploying the Thaad anti-missile defense system. The move rocked China-Korea relations. As the two countries edged towards derailment, a leadership change in Korea saw a diplomatically astute new President Woon Jae-in halting the move, thereby repairing  bilateral ties. The Thaad system was a defense system. Now President Yoon is calling for strategic nuclear attack weapons.

“A struggling new China had no choice but to send ill-equipped volunteer soldiers who, against all odds, pushed back the US to the negotiating table.”

Seventy years ago in the Korean peninsula, the US brushed aside China’s stern warnings and ordered the US-led allied troops to roll across the 38th parallel to China’s doorstep. That left a struggling new China with no choice but to send ill-equipped volunteer soldiers who, against all odds, pushed back the US to the negotiating table. Today, stationing US strategic attack weapons in Korea will be tantamount to creating “China’s Ukraine” under Beijing’s very nose, its threat to China no different from that of NATO eastward expansion to Russia. 


US sees Russia as a “serious challenger”, and that triggered the Ukraine solution. US sees China as the “paramount challenger”. What will it do? All that we know, just as the US knows, is that the later the US acts, the harder it will get. US strategic patience is wearing thin.

The US Competition Law runs into thousand pages. Article 3301 provides US$10 million in 2022 for the “promotion of democracy in Hong Kong”. In 2019, the US plotted a color revolution in Hong Kong, causing widespread social unrest but ended up in full retreat. One consequence is that Hong Kong has lost its role as a buffer in US-China contest. The “promotion of democracy in Hong Kong” provision is a tell-tale signal that the 2019 riot is not the end of the story.

Hong Kong was rocked by violent protests in 2019. Image by Oscar Chan/ Pexels

The US Competition Act has a lot more to offer. It will deploy and develop tools to protect “internet freedom” in Hong Kong; coordinate with US allies such as Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan and Korea to “promote democracy and human rights” in Hong Kong; probe how China uses Hong Kong to carry out “espionage activities”. The list is endless.


The Act’s China provisions range from the macro to the micro. At the macro level, all federal agencies shall appoint a deputy head whose only task is to map out strategic competition against China. It is an all-out governmental level onslaught. Micro-provisions include a project to instill “democratic values” among young African leaders against “China’s fake propaganda”. So even youngsters in faraway Africa will have no escape from the tentacles of US influence operations, just as many youngsters in Hong Kong had flared up in arms against China in 2019.

The Competition Act’s Taiwan provisions seek to remove all restrictions previously applied to US officials visiting Taiwan; to strengthen Taiwan’s military to the fullest extent possible, particularly its asymmetrical defense capability against China. The US pays  lip service to  the “One China” principle but does not disguise its blatant effort to “Ukrainize” Taiwan. 


The American over-printing of money to fund its overspending of the world’s resources is unsustainable. Now even the US dollar, the cornerstone of the US-led global order, is facing challenges. Look at the almighty Federal Reserve. Last year when virtually all leading US economists warned against the surging inflation, the Fed kept saying authoritatively that inflation was “transient”. Today, it goes the opposite direction and started the most hawkish anti-inflation rate hikes in decades. Some commenters said that with hindsight, the Fed has “misjudged” inflation. Really? A core mission of the Fed is to control inflation, a job it has been doing for more than a century, and with all the financial data and economic statistics and analytical tools plus the best brains on hand. Could it possibly make such a fundamental mistake?

To say the Fed “misjudged inflation” is to say Einstein misjudged Physics 101. The real reason is: financial warfare must tie-in and time-in geopolitical conflicts. Today, with the Ukraine conflict raging, information war roaring, global food crisis looming, pro-Chinese nations from Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka trembling, Japan and Korea itching, this is the right time to add: financial turmoil boiling. What we see is only the beginning.


With every US federal agency devising anti-China measures, there is nothing US won’t do, there is everything we can’t imagine. Take Hong Kong’s contribution as a global financial centre to China’s financial well-being. What if the US kicks Hong Kong out of the SWIFT system as it did to Russia? Should Hong Kong lie flat, letting our financial prowess wither, or come up with ingenious measures to push back the US? In the face of this urgency, it is regrettable that universities in Hong Kong are still mesmerized by the colonial playthings known as “China studies” instead of doing serious US studies.

It is against this backdrop that Mr John Lee is chosen to lead Hong Kong. As our “war-time” marshal, he is looked upon to lead Hong Kong in what may turn out to be a most tumultuous period in this part of the world. 

CK Yeung is a former Associate Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University and currently Vice President of a think tank.

Image of Hong Kong at the top by Jason Wong/ Unsplash

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