Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has reshuffled her cabinet, naming Secretary of Security John Lee as chief secretary – the number two job in government – and police chief Chris Tang as Lee’s replacement, in a move seen as a tightening of China’s grip on the territory amid calls for more sanctions from the US in the wake of the crackdown on the pro-democracy Apple Daily.
In a news conference on Friday, Lam also announced that the Deputy Police Commissioner, Raymond Siu, would become the city’s new police chief.
Lee’s appointment as chief secretary marks the first time that a former police officer has taken on a top administrative position in the territory.
While the appointments were announced by Lam, they were also made with the approval of China’s State Council. They were first announced in China’s state media.
In a brief statement following the formal announcement on Friday, Lee said that he would ensure that “patriots” were governing Hong Kong, and vowed to help the chief executive implement policies to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Carrie Lam, Lee and Tang now meeting press. pic.twitter.com/itlKs5wFqY
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) June 25, 2021
For his part, Tang said that he would make sure that the forces under his authority would help protect the city’s “national security”, and help eradicate any forms of domestic “terrorism” and and threats from “external forces”. As police chief, Tang was the main law enforcer in the city during the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Meanwhile, Siu said he will continue to “lead the police force in a spirit of loyalty and connecting with the community to protect Hong Kong’s national security.”
The three newly-appointed officials did not take questions from reporters, leaving Lam to face the press. The media group’s founder Jimmy Lai was arrested last August and is in jail awaiting trial under the broadly-worded National Security Law that China imposed on the territory a year ago.
The reshuffle came a day after the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper published its last edition after its editors and top executives were arrested and its assets frozen. Lee described those arrested as “criminals” saying that “normal journalists” should not associate with them.
During the press conference, Lam told the media that her vision for the city was to “uphold citizens’ “legitimate rights”, but that the law would also be strictly enforced.
The controversial national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong punishes crimes of secession, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with terms of up to life in prison.
Beijing says the law is necessary to deal with separatism and foreign interference, but critics say the legislation is now being used to go after dissenters and activists, citing the charging of several people under the law.
Calls for US sanctions
Recent events in Hong Kong, including the closure of the Apple Daily newspaper, prompted two leading US senators to urge President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on those responsible, suggesting foreign banks were among those implicated.
Senator Pat Toomey, Republican ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, a committee member, said the Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed last year required the US secretary of state to identify to Congress any foreign person, including foreign businesses “materially contributing” to the “inability of the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the freedom of assembly, speech, press, or independent rule of law.”
“It seems very likely that the breathtaking crackdown on Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily involves numerous foreign persons to whom Section 5 of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act applies,” the letter said.
The letter referred to a Reuters news agency report last month that Lee, the newly-appointed chief secretary, sent letters to Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years’ jail for any dealings with the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
Lee had ordered the branches to freeze Lai’s accounts, “which they appear to have done,” said a text of the senators’ letter made available to Reuters.
Some 500 police officers earlier this week raided the Apple Daily’s and the letter said Hong Kong’s Security Bureau then ordered Apple Daily’s banks to freeze the newspaper’s assets, “directly resulting in its closure.”
“We urge your administration to comprehensively enforce the Hong Kong Autonomy Act in the immediate wake of the injustice imposed upon Jimmy Lai and the forced closure of Apple Daily,” it said.
The senators’ legislation requires mandatory sanctions on persons and entities that directly undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and secondary sanctions on banks that do business with those entities and people.
In their letter, the senators added that it was their understanding that the orders to the foreign banks were issued in an extrajudicial manner, by a single official outside of the court system, and without any criminal charges or subpoenas.
“These orders solidify the impression of many that the rule of law is no more in Hong Kong,” they said.
Last month, a Citi spokesperson said in response to the Reuters story that the bank was required to comply with all laws and regulations in the countries in which it operates.
HSBC declined to comment, but CEO Noel Quinn said previously that the bank has to comply with police requests in any country in the world.
On Thursday, Biden called the closure of the Apple Daily a “sad day for media freedom” and said it signalled “intensifying repression” by China, while vowing to maintain support for the people of the Chinese-ruled territory.
He made no mention of any plans to impose further sanctions over the crackdown.
The closure has been described by Human Rights Watch as “systematic dismantling” of civil and political rights of people in the city by the Chinese government.
“Hong Kong people are watching the Chinese government take rapid-fire steps to destroy their democratic society,” said Maya Wang, senior Chinese researcher at HRW.
HRW said that Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong “are coordinated and comprehensive and appear aimed to transform a mostly free city into one that follows the Chinese Community Party line”.
In March, the Biden administration identified 24 Chinese officials previously sanctioned by the Trump administration as responsible for reducing Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.
It said foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions with them were now subject to sanctions.
However, in its latest report to Congress required under the bill in May, the Treasury Department did not identify any foreign financial institutions doing business with those people.