HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Monday she would not seek a second term after five turbulent years marked by huge protests calling for her resignation, a security crackdown that quashed dissent and more recently a wave of COVID-19 that overwhelmed the healthcare system.
His successor will be chosen in May, and the city’s security chief during the 2019 protests is among the possible choices.
“I will end my five-year term as chief executive on June 30 this year, and I will also end my 42 years of public service,” Lam told a news conference. She thanks her team of local officials and the central authorities in Beijing, and said she plans to spend more time with her family, which is her “only consideration”.
Speculation had swirled for months about whether she would seek another term, but she said her decision was conveyed to the central government in Beijing last year and was met with “respect and understanding”.
“Less than two years into my tenure as CEO, because of the anti-extradition bill and because of the interference from foreign forces and also the attack of COVID-19, I was under a great pressure,” Lam said. “However, the motivation for me to continue was the very loyal support I received from the central authorities.”
She presided over a period in which Beijing firmly established control of the former British colony which was returned to China in 1997. For years, the city has oscillated between calls for more freedom and growing signs of China extending its reach into the city, even after Hong Kong was promised 50 years of freedom to govern itself semi-autonomously from the mainland.
Lam’s popularity declined sharply during his five-year tenure, particularly due to legislation that would have allowed crime suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial and later due to his leadership. during protests in 2019. Mass demonstrations were sometimes marked by violent clashes between police and protesters. Authorities insisted foreign interference was fueling the movement, rather than organic local activism, while protesters denounced police actions as excessive and said the violence and seditious allegations were attempts to undermine the pro-democracy cause.
She also strongly supported the national security law initiated by Beijing and implemented by her government, seen as eroding the “one country, two systems” framework that promised after Britain’s handover that city residents would retain freedoms not found in mainland China, such as a free press and freedom of speech.
The Security Act and other police and court actions in the years that followed all but wiped out the city’s pro-democracy movement, with activists and supporters of the movement arrested or imprisoned. Others fled into exile.
Hong Kong media say the city’s No. 2 leader John Lee is likely to enter the race to succeed Lam. Chief Secretary Lee was the city’s security chief during the 2019 protests and is known for his support of police forces during protests and his tough stance against protesters.
Hong Kong’s leader is elected by a committee made up of lawmakers, representatives of various industries and professions, and pro-Beijing representatives such as Hong Kong deputies to the Chinese legislature. One of the unmet demands of the 2019 protests was the direct election of the city’s chief executive.
The chief executive election had been set for March 27 but was postponed to May 8 as the city suffers its worst coronavirus outbreak of the pandemic.
Lam said holding the polls as originally planned would pose “public health risks” even if a committee of just 1,462 people is involved.
Hong Kong has reported nearly 1.2 million cases, 99% of them during the fifth wave caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant. This has strained the healthcare system, with hospitals sometimes placing patients on beds outside. Nearly 8,000 people died in the latest outbreak and morgues operating at capacity used refrigerated containers to temporarily store bodies.
Lam’s government has been widely criticized for its about-face policies, including mixed messaging in February and March on whether a lockdown and mandatory mass testing would be implemented. The uncertainty sent panic among residents, who emptied store shelves to stockpile daily necessities.
Plans for mandatory mass testing have been scrapped and Lam last week urged all residents to test themselves with rapid antigen kits between April 8 and 10. She later said the exercise was voluntary as it was not possible to enforce it.
Lam, 64, previously served as chief secretary and development secretary and other positions in the civil service. She earned the nickname “good fighter” for her tough stance and refusal to back down in political battles.
Lam renounced her British citizenship in 2007 when she was appointed development secretary. Her husband and two children retained their British nationality.
Soo reported from Singapore. AP writer Ken Moritsugu contributed from Beijing.