HAILING THE CHIEF This photo illustration shows pages from two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong filled with advertisements from leading companies and business figures praising the selection of John Lee as the city’s incoming chief executive on Monday, May 9, 2022. AFP PHOTO
HAILING THE CHIEF This photo illustration shows pages from two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong filled with advertisements from leading companies and business figures praising the selection of John Lee as the city’s incoming chief executive on Monday, May 9, 2022. AFP PHOTO

HONG KONG: Western multinational corporations and local tycoons published newspaper advertisements on Monday congratulating John Lee on becoming Hong Kong's next leader, following a selection process condemned by critics as anti-democratic.

Lee, 64, a former security chief who oversaw the crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement, was anointed the business hub's new chief executive on Sunday in a near-unanimous vote by a small committee of Beijing loyalists.

He was the sole candidate in the race to succeed outgoing leader Carrie Lam at a time when Hong Kong is being remolded in China's authoritarian image.

Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, two newspapers that answer to the office that sets Beijing's Hong Kong policy, were filled with ads on Monday from leading companies and business figures praising Lee's selection.

The majority were from Chinese and Hong Kong businesses, as well as community organizations.

The "Big Four" accountancy firms — KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC — were among the Western multinational firms placing ads, as were the city flag carrier Cathay Pacific and conglomerates Swire and Jardine Matheson.

Messages were also carried by Hong Kong's family tycoon-dominated property giants, including Sun Hung Kai and Henderson Land Development.

Western businesses have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position in the former United Kingdom colony, especially as geopolitical tensions have risen with China.

Many have embraced progressive political causes in Western markets, such as the anti-racism Black Lives Matter movement, same-sex equality and ridding supply chains of labor abuses.

But they usually steer clear of any criticism of China's policies toward hot spots like Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan.

Some companies, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered, Swire and Jardine Matheson, publicly backed Beijing's national security law, which was imposed on Hong Kong after 2019's democracy protests to curb dissent.

Can Hong Kong reopen?

The elevation of Lee, who is under United States sanctions, places a security official in Hong Kong's top job for the first time after a tumultuous few years for a city battered by political unrest and economically debilitating pandemic controls.

Despite the city's mini-constitution promising universal suffrage, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, the source of years of protests since its 1997 handover to China.

After the 2019 rallies, Beijing responded with a crackdown and a new "patriots only" political vetting system that eradicated the city's once-outspoken political opposition.

Lee faced no rivals and won 99 percent of the votes cast by the 1,461-strong committee that picks the city's leader — roughly 0.02 percent of the city's population.

Beijing hailed the process as "a real demonstration of democratic spirit." But European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell countered that the selection process was a "violation of democratic principles and political pluralism."

In response, a spokesman for China's foreign affairs ministry in Hong Kong told Borrell and other EU politicians like him to stop meddling in the special administrative region's affairs.

According to the mouthpiece, Lee's election is significant, taking place on the 25th year since Hong Kong was returned to China and as the "one country, two systems" policy is entering a new period.

The election, the spokesman said, also further deepened the principle of "patriots administering Hong Kong," as well as showed it was fair, complied with laws and regulations, and testified to the strong public support for Lee.

A former police officer, Lee has vowed to strengthen Hong Kong's national security and integrate the city further with the mainland.

He wants to reboot the city's economy and slowly reopen its pandemic-sealed borders at a time when rivals have moved to living with the coronavirus.

But it is unclear how he can do that, given China has doubled down on its strict zero-Covid strategy.

WITH XINHUA