Hong Kong’s No 2 official, John Lee, says he will contend for the top job once his resignation is approved by Beijing, paving the way for him to make a bid for the post of chief executive next month when the Election Committee picks the city’s next leader.

Lee, 64, had been tight-lipped on whether he would run for the top job amid the election buzz, but quitting his chief secretary for administration post is a necessary step if he wishes to seek higher office.

Breaking his silence on Wednesday, Lee said: “The reason for my resignation is that if my resignation is approved by the Central People’s Government, I shall plan to prepare to stand for the upcoming chief executive election.”

He said he will inform the people of his next move once his resignation is approved.

Lee also thanked Chief Executive Carrie Lam for appointing him to the posts of chief secretary and security head, before he ended the minutes-long briefing without taking questions.

Hours earlier, the Chief Executive Office issued a statement saying Lee has tendered his resignation and is on leave with immediate effect.

It said Lam has submitted his resignation to the central government in accordance with Article 48(5) of the Basic Law.

The Straits Times understands from some in political circles in the city that this election is likely a one-man race and Lee will be the only candidate to seek the top job.

If it happens, this will mark the first time in two decades that a candidate has run unopposed.

This comes after Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city told local politicians and elites in meetings on Wednesday that the central government has given Lee its blessings to be the city’s next leader.

But his resignation has to be accepted by the central government before he can announce his chief executive candidacy. It would take at least two to three days for Beijing to approve a principal official’s resignation.

Local media reported that Lee could announce his intention to run for chief executive as soon as Friday, so as to begin his campaign ahead of the nomination period deadline.

The nomination period runs from April 3 to April 14, shortened by two days due to the Easter holiday.

On May 8, the 1,462 members of the powerful Election Committee will pick Hong Kong’s next leader for the city’s 7.4 million residents.

Lee will have to secure at least 188 nominations from the committee members and at least 15 nominations from each of the committee’s five sectors to enter the race.

The former career police officer’s name had popped up quite frequently in the past months. Other names tossed up included Lam, former chief executive Leung Chun Ying and Financial Secretary Paul Chan.

Lee had served as Lam’s security chief, during which he oversaw the quelling of the 2019 unrest sparked by unhappiness over an anti-extradition Bill.

During his term as secretary for security, Lee also rolled out the Beijing-drafted national security law.

Lau Siu Kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, told The Straits Times that the central government believes Lee is the best man for the job, given Hong Kong’s current situation and possible future challenges.

“The central government does not want to undermine the unity of the pro-establishment camp and allow foreign forces to take advantage of the division. So while it is not the norm for Hong Kong, Beijing might now prefer to have just one candidate,” he said.

Lau added that there are four key attributes that Beijing would want in the next leader.

They are: decisiveness and fearlessness in safeguarding the interests and security of Hong Kong and China; consistency with the central government and ability to roll out its policies on Hong Kong; familiarity with government operations; and the ability to unite all groups, especially those who are patriotic.

Tycoon Allan Zeman, who is chairman of the Lan Kwai Fong Group, on Wednesday told ST that it is important for Hong Kong people to get together behind the next leader “for the benefit of Hong Kong”.

“We’ve come through a very difficult five years. Looking forward, hopefully we can overcome this virus and subsequent waves until it becomes endemic and we’re able to fix the problems we have,” he said.

Asked about how this could turn out to be a one-man race, Zeman noted that Macau has always had a single candidate running for chief executive. But Beijing’s intention was never for Hong Kong to have a single candidate.

“I think the intention is to have two or three candidates running,” he said, adding that the pandemic has impacted the race.

“You can’t really do debates and there’s social distancing and all the problems. So, I think they felt that the right thing would be to just have a single candidate.”

Lee’s resignation comes two days after Lam announced on Monday that she would not seek re-election.

Her five-year term was marked by a series of unprecedented crises, such as the 2019 mass demonstrations, unpopular electoral system reforms, sanctions by the West and her handling of the pandemic that has angered businesses and residents.

Lam, 64, had cited her family as the key reason for ending her 42-year career in government. She will retire on June 30.