Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Monday that she would not run for a second term in office after a turbulent five years at the helm.
Lam became chief executive in 2017 after serving as a government bureaucrat for decades. The Hong Kong leader’s tenure has been overshadowed by political unrest, a crackdown on dissent and the city’s recent struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
She told reporters in Hong Kong on Monday that Beijing had accepted her decision and that her reasons were that she wanted to focus on being with her family.
“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,” she said.
Lam, 64, sparked controversy in 2019 when she proposed a bill that would see people who face criminal charges in Hong Kong extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill caused a huge backlash in the city, triggering months of widespread pro-democracy street demonstrations, which sometimes turned violent.
Although she eventually dropped the proposal, the pro-democracy movement evolved as activists pushed for further freedoms, including universal suffrage.
National security law
The unrest prompted Beijing to intervene by imposing a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, outlawing most forms of political dissent, and prohibiting acts deemed as subversion, secession and foreign collusion.
Authorities have enforced a political crackdown with dozens of civil society groups and several independent media outlets closing. At least 150 dissidents have also been arrested and several jailed while dozens of democratic lawmakers and political figures are still awaiting trial.
Shortly after the law came into effect, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Lam and other Hong Kong officials for suppressing freedoms in the territory.
Michael Mo, a human rights advocate and former district councillor in Hong Kong, told VOA that Lam’s departure was expected.
“Lam repeatedly expressed her intention not to seek a second term to Peking [Beijing] as reported by media, and she never denied this speculation back then.
“She’ll be remembered as the person who opened the floodgate to destroy the principle of one country, two systems entirely and crush the freedom, both economically and politically, that the people in the city are used to. Ruthless, arrogant, self-centered, lack of empathy, and poor judgment on policy and political choices.
“The only positive is that she established the children’s affairs committee as pledged but nothing achieved so far,” Mo added.
Lam has also overseen Hong Kong as it endures its worst outbreak of the coronavirus, sparked by the omicron variant in recent months, which saw the territory with one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.
The outbreak has prompted thousands of residents to leave the city, while Lam has been criticized for sending mixed messages about a possible citywide lockdown and plans for compulsory testing schemes.
'Destruction of old Hong Kong'
Veteran political scientist Joseph Cheng, formerly of Hong Kong but now a New Zealand resident, says it is difficult to find any positives in Lam’s tenure.
“She has been implementing the authoritarian line of Beijing and has become very unpopular, as reflected by opinion polls consistently,” Cheng told VOA in an email.
“In the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, Hong Kong did reasonably well, and the economy was in relatively good shape. Now the death rate in Hong Kong is the highest in the world and the economy is quite down. People are unhappy with the deterioration in the business environment.
“It is difficult to find anything positive to say on her behalf. Her administration will be remembered for the destruction of good old Hong Kong, and for driving people to leave the territory,” Cheng added.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung, who was recently appointed to the Election Committee in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, praised Lam.
“Mrs. Lam, with the support of the central government, led the SAR government to do a lot of work, including the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law and the improvement of the electoral system.”
Yung was referring to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China, although the city is semi-autonomous.
“The National Security Law ended the chaos and violence associated with the legislative amendment exercise in June 2019,” she told VOA.
“I truly express gratitude to Mrs. Lam for her hard work during her five years in office,” Yung added.
Beijing restructured Hong Kong’s Legislative Council last year, and in December pro-Beijing candidates won the rescheduled elections as no pro-democracy opposition chose to partake.
Next in line
The election for chief executive was originally scheduled for March 27 but was pushed back to May 8 because of the coronavirus outbreak.
John Lee is Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration in Hong Kong and Lam’s current No. 2. Local media say he is likely to enter the race for chief executive when the rescheduled elections commence.
“Consensus speculation is John Lee,” a China political analyst confirmed to VOA.
Moving to Britain?
Born when Hong Kong was under British control, Lam renounced her British citizenship in 2007 as required under Chinese rule for senior officials of the Hong Kong government. In recent years, Lam has acknowledged that she still wished to retire in Britain as her two sons and husband still hold British citizenship.
Nathan Law, a pro-democracy activist who left Hong Kong for self-exile in Britain, said he believes Lam’s visa should be declined should she decide to move to Britain.
“We should not allow perpetrators like her to walk around like they are innocent,” he tweeted.