China on Friday promoted Hong Kong's top security official to the territory's No. 2 spot as Beijing looks to the government of the Asian financial hub to clamp down on free speech and political opponents to restore stability following anti-government protests.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Secretary for Security John Lee would replace Matthew Cheung as the city's chief secretary, while police chief Chris Tang would take over Lee's role. Raymond Siu Chak-yee, Tang's deputy, will be the new head of the police force.
Hong Kong's government has long been lauded for its professionalism and efficiency, but its image has been battered in recent years by its banning and suppression of pro-democracy protests and its hard-line enforcement of Beijing's security policies. The U.S. and other Western democracies have imposed visa bans and other sanctions on Lam, Lee and other members of the administration.
Violent clashes between police and pro-democracy demonstrators in 2019 prompted the central government to adopt a firm line against political concessions, a policy seen through by Lam, Lee, Tang and Siu, who made restoring public order their top priority.
"They have had distinguished performance in the government over the years and possess proven leadership skills," Lam said of those promoted. "I am confident that they are competent for their new posts and would rise to the challenges in serving the community."
Cheung, the former No. 2, will be retiring from government service.
The leadership changes come a year after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the former British colony and one day after Hong Kong's last remaining pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily, published its final edition.
Police froze $2.3 million of the newspaper's assets, searched its office and arrested five top editors and executives last week, accusing them of foreign collusion to endanger national security. Its founder, Jimmy Lai, is facing charges under the national security law of foreign collusion and is currently serving a prison sentence for involvement in the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement.
On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was a "sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world," and accused Beijing of having "insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views."
"People in Hong Kong have the right to freedom of the press. Instead, Beijing is denying basic liberties and assaulting Hong Kong's autonomy and democratic institutions and processes, inconsistent with its international obligations," Biden said in a statement on the White House website.
Apple Daily continues to be published online in Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that China claims as its own territory.
Beijing promised Hong Kong could maintain its civil liberties for 50 years after the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, but has essentially abandoned that commitment to impose total political control and end what it sees as undue foreign influence on the semi-autonomous city's institutions.
China effectively ended multiparty democracy in Hong Kong by having the ceremonial Chinese legislature in Beijing impose the national security law without debate or a vote in the city's Legislative Council. It then moved to pack the Legislative Council with Beijing loyalists while radically reducing the proportion of legislators directly elected by voters.
Opposition legislators earlier resigned as a group after four colleagues were barred on national security grounds.
In recent months, police have arrested most of the city's pro-democracy activists. Most are still in police custody, while others have sought asylum abroad, under threat from Lam's administration for past statements and actions seen as disloyal to China or in violation of Hong Kong law as it now stands.
Despite the overwhelming emphasis on security, Lam told reporters that the role of the chief secretary in helping oversee the city's daily administration, including dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, had not changed.
Yet she appeared to acknowledge Beijing's increasingly assertive role in managing the city's affairs and the central government's demand for absolute loyalty from Hong Kong officials and members of the Legislative Council.
"Now today as chief executive, I am responsible not only to Hong Kong but also to the central government, performing national duties, particularly in safeguarding national security," Lam told reporters. "So for people with commitment, integrity, leadership and spirit to serve the nation and Hong Kong ... we will put in our best."
China has dismissed foreign sanctions and criticism as interference in its internal affairs, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday defended the national security law as focused on "cracking down on a small group of anti-China elements in Hong Kong who have seriously endangered national security, and which protects the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the vast majority of Hong Kong residents in accordance with the law, including freedom of the press."
"Since the enforcement of the Hong Kong national security law, Hong Kong society has returned to stability, the rule of law and justice has been upheld, and the legal rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents and foreign citizens have been better protected in a safer environment," Zhao said at a daily briefing.
"Accusing China of suppressing press freedom just because the organization involved in the case is a news outlet and the individuals punished are working in the field of journalism is an attempt to confuse the public out of ulterior motives," Zhao said.
"The U.S. should respect the facts, stop using excuses of any form to obstruct law enforcement in (Hong Kong), stop shielding suspects and interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs in any way," he said.