HONG KONG — Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Monday that she will not seek a second term and will end her five-year tenure as the territory’s Beijing-appointed leader later this year. She’ll leave a legacy marked by political upheaval, historically low trust in her governance and, most recently, a coronavirus crisis.
Speaking at a weekly news conference, Lam said she relayed her decision to Beijing in March 2021 based on her “personal wish and aspirations.”
“My family thinks this is time for me to go home,” she said. “Beijing expresses that they understand and respect” her decision, Lam added.
Lam will leave Hong Kong’s highest local position in June, ending a term defined by a political crisis that reconfigured every aspect of the once-autonomous territory from its courts to its schools and drew Beijing much closer into the city’s political fold. Hong Kong’s chief executive is beholden to the mainland; analysts say it is almost certain that Beijing told her she must go.
Her “persistent demonstration of incompetence, most recently over the management of the covid outbreaks, sealed her fate,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. He cautioned that the next chief executive is not likely to represent a significant improvement.
“Beijing will again prioritize loyalty to competence, and Lam’s successor will face many of the constraints that Lam had to navigate,” he said.
Local media, citing sources, reported that John Lee, the city’s second-highest official, will put his name forward for the role. Lee, a former police officer, was Hong Kong’s security minister before taking on his current role as chief secretary.
Lam was selected as chief executive in 2017 by a handpicked panel from about 1,200 political and business elites known as the Election Committee. She entered the position promising to heal political divides in the city, as the fourth chief executive since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 and the first woman to hold the role. Her successor will be selected in the same way, also through this small and overwhelmingly pro-Beijing committee.
In 2019, she proposed a bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to China, provoking a backlash that would irrevocably change the territory. More than a million people across Hong Kong society marched against the bill on June 9, 2019, from business executives and lawyers to housewives and children. The next weekend, even more people turned up to another rally, denouncing Lam and her administration for its decision several days earlier to crack down on student protesters.
Lam held firm, waiting months before withdrawing the extradition proposal. By that point, the protests had swelled into a large-scale rebuke of Hong Kong’s government, Beijing and the Hong Kong police. Protests ended in early 2020, only after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In late June that year, Lam helped Beijing enact a law that quashed dissent in the city and has been used to jail most of the pro-democracy opposition.
In the midst of the political crisis in 2019, Lam’s popularity tanked. According to surveys from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, an independent pollster, she is the least popular chief executive by a significant margin.
Colleagues and diplomats describe Lam as stubborn, headstrong and eager to please higher-ups, specifically the Chinese central authorities in Beijing. But Lam at points in 2019 acknowledged the damage her administration caused. In a leaked recording published by Reuters, Lam admitted she caused “unforgivable” havoc with the extradition bill and said that she would “quit” if given the choice.
The government’s role in the 2019 unrest has not been investigated, though multiple Hong Kong politicians — both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing — called for such an inquiry at the time. Pro-establishment lawmakers said then that they were tainted by association with Lam and were worried that they would lose their seats in the next election for supporting the extradition bill. One pro-establishment lawmaker, Alice Mak, swore at Lam in a heated exchange in June 2019.
In 2020, Lam oversaw the passage of what Beijing called a national security law, drafted and passed directly by Chinese authorities, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature. In August that year, she was sanctioned by the United States, named by the Treasury Department as the person “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.”
Lee, the chief secretary and Lam’s potential replacement, is also under American sanctions. He helped Lam promote the extradition bill as well as the national security law.
Lam had conceded that the law hurt Hong Kong’s international reputation but said “foreign forces” were to blame, in language echoing that of Beijing’s. She has consistently backed the national security law as necessary to restore stability in the territory.
More recently, Lam oversaw coronavirus mitigation measures that led to Hong Kong’s international isolation while failing to control infections and deaths. More than 8,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the city since the start of the year, most of them elderly and unvaccinated residents. Health experts have faulted the government for not planning for such a scenario despite warnings and neglecting to vaccinate vulnerable populations. Lam, as chief executive, leads Hong Kong’s pandemic response.
The pandemic has added to the stress on Hong Kong and its global standing. Local and foreign businesses and chambers of commerce have expressed concern that the territory’s “zero covid” policy, closed borders and strict social distancing rules are eroding Hong Kong’s competitiveness, even more than the security law. Diplomats say that long-term damage has been done to the territory’s viability under Lam’s policies.
In the 20-minute news conference, Lam did not reflect in depth on her work during her term but said she and her team had faced more challenges than those of previous leaders.
“We have described Hong Kong in these few years as experiencing unprecedented severe challenges, the grimmest situation since the handover,” Lam said.
Her departure, she added, was not related to her performance or that of her government. Lam did not comment on her prospective replacement.