By Holmes Chan and Jerome Taylor
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam announced Monday that she will step down in June ending a five-year term in office that saw democracy protests squashed and strict pandemic curbs plunge the business hub into international isolation.
Ending months of speculation, Lam confirmed she would not seek a second term when a committee made up of the city’s political elite chooses a new leader next month.
“I will complete my five-year term as chief executive on June 30, and officially conclude my 42-year career in government,” Lam told reporters.
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.
“I have to put my family members first, and they feel it is time for me to return home,” she said.
A career bureaucrat, Lam became Hong Kong’s first woman leader in 2017.
The 64-year-old had dodged questions for months over whether she would run again and during Monday’s announcement she revealed that had informed Beijing of her plans to quit more than a year ago.
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 percent 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.
Politics and pandemic
Hong Kong’s number two official, John Lee, who has a background in the security services, has been tipped by local press as a likely contender.
Another potential front runner is finance chief Paul Chan.
Lam said on Monday morning that she has not yet received any resignations from her ministers, a step that cabinet members like Lee and Chan would need to make before running.
Lam’s successor will take office on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover by Britain to China.
She leaves office a divisive figure.
Supporters see her as a staunch Beijing loyalist who steered the city through huge democracy protests and a debilitating pandemic.
Critics, including many western powers, view her as someone who oversaw the collapse of Hong Kong’s political freedoms and its reputation as a stable regional business hub.
After huge and sometimes violent protests swept Hong Kong in 2019 Beijing responded with a crackdown that has remoulded the once outspoken city into a mirror of the authoritarian mainland.
Lam became the first Hong Kong leader to be sanctioned by the United States because of her support for the crackdown which has seen most of the city’s prominent democracy supporters arrested, jailed or flee overseas.
Her administration also hewed to China’s zero-Covid model, implementing some of the world’s toughest anti-coronavirus measures.
The largely closed borders and strict quarantine rules kept infections at bay for some 18 months at the expense of Hong Kong being cut off internationally.
But the zero-Covid strategy collapsed when the highly transmissible Omicron variant broke through earlier this year leaving Hong Kong with one of the developed world’s highest fatality rates.