23rd November 2023 – (Hong Kong) John Lee took office facing immense challenges. The city was still reeling from massive anti-government protests in 2019, along with the economic devastation of strict zero-COVID policies. His predecessor ended her term profoundly unpopular after cracking down on civil liberties.

In this climate, Lee laid out an unambiguous vision for Hong Kong’s future – one that prioritises national security and patriotic education over Western-style freedoms. And this assertive stance has earned him the highest approval of any Chief Executive in years.

A November 2023 survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found 57% of residents approve of Lee’s performance. This is a remarkable turnaround from his early months, when public sentiment remained tepid. Evidently many in Hong Kong crave stability after years of upheaval, and embrace Lee’s laser focus on law and order.

Key policy initiatives explain Lee’s surging support. He has taken a hard line on perceived national security threats, aligning Hong Kong closely with Beijing’s interests. New “patriotic” education programs and civil service vetting aim to instill Chinese nationalist values among the city’s youth.

Lee is also working to reboot Hong Kong’s economy after long stagnation. His signature Northern Metropolis project will provide new housing and infrastructure. Closer integration with mainland China’s Greater Bay Area offers opportunities for financial firms. Investors have cheered the prospect of refreshed growth. Of course, rights advocates decry lost freedoms under Lee’s tenure. Public gatherings face tighter restrictions, and press freedom is deteriorating. But a majority in Hong Kong appear willing to trade some openness for renewed stability and prosperity. This pragmatic outlook represents a sea change from just a few years ago. What explains the shift in public opinion? Several factors are at play.

First, the sheer chaos of 2019 left many exhausted and disillusioned with unrest. Protestors paralysed the city for months, clashing violently with police. This lawlessness alienated citizens who value order and security. Lee’s tough posture against dissent taps into a longing for normalcy.

Second, global hostility toward China has rallied Hong Kongers behind Beijing. Western criticism and sanctions are perceived as hypocritical bullying. This anti-foreign sentiment bolsters Lee’s Chinese nationalist agenda. Positioning Hong Kong as an indispensable gateway between China and the world plays well locally.

Third, zero-COVID policies ravaged Hong Kong’s economy and quality of life. Carrie Lam’s unwillingness to reopen faster despite successful vaccination drew immense frustration. Resuming travel and business is an urgent priority that Lee appears focused on delivering.

Of course, risks remain if Lee governs too heavy-handedly. A portion of Hong Kong still cherishes civil liberties and Western values. While muted currently, pushback could revive if policies become intolerable. Lee must avoid stoking fears of a “mainlandization” of Hong Kong.

Yet for now, Lee appears to have won over much of the previously silent majority – citizens who eschew activism in favour of stability. His decisive leadership is welcomed by those exhausted by years of chaos. This was evidenced by Lee’s landslide appointment as Chief Executive in May 2022. He secured over 99% of votes from the Election Committee while running unopposed. Such dominance highlights Lee’s widespread establishment support.

Since taking office, Lee has moved swiftly to deliver on his policy pledges. On national security, he has vowed to enact long-delayed Article 23 legislation, prohibiting sedition against Beijing. New patriotic education initiatives aim to strengthen Chinese identity among Hong Kong’s youth. To boost the economy, Lee’s Northern Metropolis project will develop a new city across from Shenzhen with housing for over one million residents. This massive investment in infrastructure and housing will stimulate growth. Closer integration with mainland China’s Greater Bay Area offers financial firms new opportunities.

Lee’s tenure is still in its early days, but his decisiveness has won over skeptics. After years of inertia under Carrie Lam, Hong Kong finally has a leader with a clear plan and the fortitude to implement it. Of course, much depends on competent execution going forward. And Lee does face criticism that his policies undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties. But his supporters argue that restoring order and prosperity take priority after the chaos of recent years.

While Western observers grow anxious over lost freedoms, the prevailing local mood is optimism that Hong Kong has turned the corner. Lee’s surge in public approval shows his tough-minded agenda resonates with citizens exhausted by turmoil.

Rather than fight the shifting political winds, the pragmatic business community appears eager to work alongside Lee’s administration. In their eyes, clearing the cloud of unrest is essential to reviving growth and confidence.

The convulsions of the past decade have profoundly reshaped Hong Kong’s political landscape. The liberal opposition that once held sway has collapsed. Localist sentiment is ascendant, viewing close integration with the mainland as indispensable to Hong Kong’s future. Lee has astutely channeled these changing attitudes with his assertive governance posture. Support from Beijing gives him a free hand to silence dissenting voices. Barring a dramatic shift in public opinion, Lee looks well-positioned to drive his vision forward.

So far, Hong Kongers seem willing to accept more authoritarian governance in exchange for renewed stability. Of course, this bargain contains inherent risks should policies turn truly repressive. But for now, Lee’s supporters outnumber his critics.

The Chief Executive’s surge in public approval shows he has a mandate to maintain his reform agenda. After years of stagnation, most in Hong Kong want leadership that can finally turn the page and restore confidence. Rightly or wrongly, many see Lee as the man for the times – a law-and-order leader with fortitude to make tough choices. His decisive governance style resonates after years of drift and indecision.

With three years still remaining in his first term, Lee has ample time to cement his early achievements. But maintaining public support will require competent administration and avoiding hubristic overreach.

Interestingly, Lee’s tenure is playing out against a global backdrop of authoritarian resurgence. As liberal democracies flounder worldwide, strongman rule is proliferating once more. Hong Kong now fits this broader trend. Of course, critics warn that sacrificing freedoms risks provoking renewed unrest, should discontent eventually boil over. It remains to be seen whether Lee can stick the landing in satisfying both Beijing’s priorities and local aspirations.

But for now, Lee appears to have won a public mandate for stricter control by delivering a semblance of stability. After years of chaos, most in Hong Kong want leadership that prioritises order above all. On that crucial metric, Lee is so far passing the test.