HONG KONG: Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam, who has governed the global financial hub through the unprecedented upheaval of anti-government protests and COVID-19, said on Monday (Apr 4) she will not seek a second five-year term of office.
"I will complete my five-year term as chief executive on Jun 30, and officially conclude my 42-year career in government," Lam told reporters.
"There’s only one consideration and that is family. I have told everyone before that family is my first priority in terms of my consideration. They think it’s time for me to go home," she added.
She declined to comment on possible candidates to replace her and said she had not decided on her future plans.
Lam said China's leaders "understood and respected" her choice not to seek another term and that she wanted to spend more time with her family.
The election was pushed back from Mar 27 to give the government time to battle a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected more than a million people in the former British colony.
Lam, born in British-ruled Hong Kong in 1957 and a lifelong civil servant who describes herself as a devout Catholic, took office in 2017 with a pledge to unite a city that was growing increasingly resentful of Beijing's tightening grip.
Two years later, millions of democracy supporters took to the streets in sometimes violent anti-government protests.
The unrest led to Beijing imposing a sweeping national security law in June 2020, giving it more power than ever to shape life in Hong Kong.
An exasperated Lam said at the height of the unrest in 2019 that if she had the choice she would quit, adding in remarks to a group of businesspeople that the chief executive "has to serve two masters by the constitution, that is the central people's government and the people of Hong Kong".
"Political room for manoeuvring is very, very, very limited," she added, according to an audio recording of her comments obtained by Reuters
Lam said on Monday she had proposed a government restructuring to mainland authorities that would include new policy departments but it would be up to the city's next leader to decide whether to go ahead with the plan.
City leaders are selected by a small election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists so whoever becomes the next leader of the former British colony will do so with Beijing's tacit approval.
Hong Kongers currently have little clarity on who will be their next leader.
The chief executive position is not popularly elected, one of the core demands of years of democracy protests which have since been crushed.
Instead, the position is selected by a 1,500-strong pro-Beijing committee, the equivalent of 0.02 per cent of the city's 7.4 million population.
The city's next leader will be chosen on May 8 but so far no one with a realistic prospect has publicly thrown their hat into the ring.
Hong Kong's chief secretary John Lee, the number two official in the city, is set to resign in order to join a race in May to become its new leader, broadcaster TVB said, citing an unidentified source.
Lee, 64, a security official during the 2019 protests, was promoted in 2021 in a move some analysts said signalled Beijing's priorities for the city related to security rather than finance or the economy. Lee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Other possible contenders mentioned in the media include the city's financial secretary, Paul Chan, as well as former leader Leung Chun-ying. None has yet to announce a bid.
Lam said on Monday morning that she has not yet received any resignations from her ministers, a step that cabinet members like Lee would need to make before running.
She also thanked Beijing for its support and trust and said her term was affected by "unprecedented pressure" due to the 2019 protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of wide-ranging freedoms, including an independent judiciary and the right to public assembly, for at least 50 years.
The United States sanctioned both Lam and Lee, among other officials, in 2020, saying they had undermined Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy from Beijing and curtailed political freedoms with the national security law that punishes offences like subversion and secession with up to life imprisonment.
Chinese and Hong Kong authorities deny individual rights are being eroded and say the security law was needed to restore the stability necessary for economic success after the prolonged unrest.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it has had four chief executives, who all struggled to balance the democratic aspirations of some residents with the vision of China's Communist Party leaders.