HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Monday she wouldn’t seek a second term after a rocky five years marked by huge protests calling for her resignation, a security crackdown that has quashed dissent and most recently a COVID-19 wave that overwhelmed the health system.
Her successor will be picked in May, with the city's hard-line security chief during the 2019 protests seen as a likely choice.
“I will complete my five-year term as chief executive on the 30th of June this year, and I will also call an end to my 42 years of public service,” Lam said at a news conference. The 64-year-old career civil servant said she plans to spend more time with her family, which is her “sole consideration.”
Speculation had swirled for months about whether she would seek another term, and she repeatedly declined to comment on the possibility. But on Monday, she said her decision had been conveyed to the central government in Beijing last year and was met with “respect and understanding.”
Her time in office will likely be remembered as a turning point during which Beijing firmly established control over the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997. For years, the city rocked back and forth between calls for more freedom and growing signs of China extending its reach, chipping away at a promise by the mainland government to give Hong Kong the power to govern itself semi-autonomously for 50 years.
Lam’s popularity sharply declined over her five-year term, particularly over legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial and her leadership during the protests that ensued in 2019. The mass demonstrations were marked at times by violent clashes between police and protesters. Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing insisted that overseas forces were fueling the movement, rather than local activism, while protesters denounced the police crackdown as excessive and said that claims of sedition were attempts to undermine the pro-democracy cause.
Lam said she came under great pressure because of the extradition bill, "interference from foreign forces" and the pandemic. “However, the motivation for me to press on was the very staunch support behind me by the central authorities,” she said, according to a simultaneous translation by a government interpreter.
Later, Lam strongly backed the national security law initiated by Beijing and implemented by her government that was seen as eroding the “one country, two systems” framework that promised after the handover from Britain that city residents would retain freedoms not found in mainland China, such as a free press and freedom of expression.
The security law and other police and court actions in the years since have virtually erased the city's pro-democracy movement, with activists and the movement's supporters either arrested or jailed. Others have fled into exile. Lam and the central government in Beijing say their actions have restored stability in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong media have reported this week that Chief Secretary John Lee, the city's No. 2 leader, is likely to enter the race to succeed Lam. Lee rose through the ranks as a police officer to become deputy commissioner in 2010, and was the city's secretary of security during the 2019 protests. He is known for his support for the police force during the 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 China’s legislature. One of the unfulfilled demands of the 2019 protests was direct election of the city’s chief executive.
The election for the chief executive had been set on March 27 but was postponed until May 8 as the city endures its worst coronavirus outbreak.
Lam said that holding the polls as originally scheduled would pose “public health risks” even if a committee of only 1,462 people is involved.
Hong Kong has reported nearly 1.2 million cases, 99% of them during the wave driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant. It has strained the healthcare system, with hospitals at times placing patients on beds outdoors. More than 8,000 people have died in the latest outbreak, and mortuaries operating at capacity have used refrigerated containers to temporarily store bodies.
Lam's government has been widely criticized for flip-flopping policies, including mixed messaging in February and March on whether a lockdown and compulsory mass-testing would be implemented. The uncertainty sparked panic among residents, who cleared out store shelves to hoard daily necessities.
The plans for compulsory mass-testing were dropped, and Lam last week urged all residents to test themselves with rapid antigen kits between April 8 to 10. She later said the exercise was voluntary as it was not possible to enforce.
Lam previously served as chief secretary and secretary for development and in other civil service positions. She earned the nickname “good fighter” for her tough stance and refusal to back down in political battles.
Lam renounced her British nationality in 2007 when she was appointed secretary for development. Her husband and two children have retained their British nationalities.
Soo reported from Singapore. Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed from Beijing.